Today, IoT implementations have extended across a broad variety of verticals and use cases, from a simple smart home system to massive industrial IoT deployments consisting of thousands of sensors.
However, all proper IoT systems should always consist of four key elements: the IoT devices, data processing, user management interface/software, and connectivity.
In this article, we will mainly focus on the importance of IoT connectivity, as well as the different popular options of IoT connectivity technologies available at the moment.
What Is IoT Connectivity?
The core concept of IoT (Internet of Things) is to connect IoT devices to the internet, allowing the exchange of data between the IoT devices, from the IoT device to a data processing system, and vice versa.
There are many technologies we can utilize to connect these IoT devices and sensors to the internet, including but not limited to cellular connectivity, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, LPWAN technologies, and satellite. In fact, there are more than 30 IoT connectivity technologies available in the market today, not to mention newer experimental technologies and older technologies we no longer use.
So, why do we need so many options?
The short answer is that because, at this moment, there is no single perfect IoT connectivity solution that can fit all situations.
While every IoT deployment is certainly unique, an ideal, perfect IoT connectivity solution would have:
- Global coverage range, can connect a device located in the north pole and another device located in Antarctica.
- As low energy consumption as possible, or even zero energy consumption
- As high bandwidth as possible, can send an unlimited amount of data instantly
Obviously, such technology doesn’t (yet) exist, at least at the moment. Thus, each IoT connectivity option we have at the moment always has tradeoffs between range, bandwidth, and energy consumption.
Coverage Range VS Bandwidth VS Energy Consumption
As discussed each IoT connectivity option represents a tradeoff between these technical requirements, and so we can segment the various connectivity options into three major categories:
High Coverage Range, High Bandwidth, High Energy Consumption
The tradeoff here, as we can see, is the high power consumption. In IoT applications, power consumption is actually a very important factor, not only to ensure optimized energy costs but also because many IoT devices rely on battery power.
However, to send a lot of data in a short amount of time over a great distance, it’s going to consume a lot of energy. Two main IoT connectivity options in this category are satellite and cellular IoT.
Cellular IoT is obviously a very popular option and is the main option when you want high range and high bandwidth and the devices are within the coverage of cellular towers. For IoT sensors that are located remotely (i.e. in the middle of a desert), then satellite is the only option.
Cellular IoT Connectivity
Cellular IoT connectivity remains the backbone for many IoT applications, offering the widest possible coverage. There are IoT-focused network connectivity providers that offer reliable coverage in more than 100 countries all around the world, allowing you to face the current IoT demands of sending a massive amount of data to devices that are separated far away.
Cellular connectivity, however, is not suitable for applications involving battery-powered IoT sensors due to its high energy consumption, but at the moment there are emerging cellular IoT technologies like Cat-M and NB-IoT focused on lowering the energy consumption without sacrificing range (with compromise in bandwidth).
Ideal for various bandwidth-intensive applications that require a lot of range. For example, telehealth (remote diagnostics, remote surgery assistance, etc.), wearable devices, and so on.
Satellite is the ultimate choice when it comes to range, and is ideal for IoT implementations that require deployments in remote locations where other forms of network delivery simply aren’t possible. However, satellite connectivity is still very expensive and difficult to deploy, and so the implementations are still pretty limited.
Low Coverage Range, High Bandwidth, Low Energy Consumption
The tradeoff here is coverage range, but in turn, we can decrease energy consumption while still being able to send a lot of data at any given time. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are two popular connectivity options in this category.
Wired connectivity (i.e. Ethernet) can also be categorized here, where the coverage range is just as short as the wire length. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are wireless technologies with lower energy consumption than cellular (especially Bluetooth LE), but the range is still fairly limited.
Wi-Fi signals can carry a massive amount of data, but can only cover a very limited range. Also, while Wi-Fi consumes less energy than cellular, it still a relatively huge power drain. So, Wi-Fi is ideal mainly in short-range IoT applications where the devices can also be connected to a power outlet, such as smart home IoT implementations, as well as IoT deployments in schools and offices.
High Coverage Range, Low Bandwidth, Low Energy Consumption
IoT connectivity options in this category can be grouped under the umbrella term LPWAN (Low Power Wide Area Network).
LPWAN technologies like LoRaWAN and SigFox can send small packets of data over a great range (more than 500 miles). This is ideal in IoT applications that don’t actually need to send and receive a lot of data. Thermostats, for example, don’t actually need a huge bandwidth to operate well, and in marine or agricultural applications, thermostats can be deployed miles away from the data processing center.
LPWANs are very useful for many IoT applications, allowing IoT devices and sensors to be deployed remotely while lasting years on battery life alone. While at the moment LPWANs can’t offer high bandwidth, most IoT sensors don’t actually need too much data.
Connectivity is a very important component for any IoT deployments, and while at the moment there isn’t any perfect IoT connectivity solution available, there is always the ideal option depending on your use cases.
For example, cellular connectivity remains the best option when it comes to IoT deployments that require a massive amount of data transmission over a great range.