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Is your IoT connectivity bubble big enough for your business case?

The Wi-Fi bubble

With homes and businesses becoming smarter, the number of IoT devices operating in these areas is on the rise. In most cases, Wi-Fi is the perfect connectivity option, offering high bandwidth and very low cost due to using existing infrastructure and common tried-and-tested technology.

For most noncritical applications, such as smart appliances, Wi-Fi is fully capable and reliable enough to get by. If the bubble bursts and devices are left with no connectivity, it’s no big deal. However, for applications such as fire alarms, security and healthcare applications, Wi-Fi’s occasional unreliability is potentially dangerous. These devices will need their own connectivity option that is guaranteed to send the necessary data, whatever the conditions.

Bigger areas call for bigger bubbles

For a business that operates over large areas, such as a mine or farm, Wi-Fi is not usually the best option due to being fundamentally designed for short-range operation. Essentially, a wider area needs a bigger connectivity bubble. For these applications, low-power wide area networks like LoRa, Sigfox and cellular-based LPWAN’s come into their own. These networks allow for a much larger connectivity bubble and are ideal for operating sensor-based devices across a wide area at a low cost. With this, devices optimized correctly for these kinds of networks use very little power to send and receive data, meaning batteries can last a very long time in the field without recharging.

These networks give devices a great deal of freedom with regards to moving around inside the coverage area of the network, but unfortunately, that might be as far as it goes. A LoRa network, although capable of covering very large areas, is still essentially a localized solution. If devices are expected to leave base, they will also be leaving the network.

A sea of Sigfox bubbles

Sigfox is a good option for moving devices, offering coverage in over 50 countries worldwide. Like LoRa, Sigfox can offer a bigger connectivity bubble, meaning devices can operate over a wider area. On top of this, Sigfox is a global network, meaning that unlike LoRa, devices will connect in London just as well as they will in Paris or Berlin.

There is, however, one drawback with Sigfox: Your devices will only work where there is a Sigfox network. Presently, Sigfox offers good coverage across many major cities in the countries covered, but not so much in rural or remote areas where there is less investment in technology and infrastructure. If your business case requires your devices to be connected and contactable everywhere they go, Sigfox might not be the answer for this reason.

Is there such a thing as a ubiquitous global LPWAN?

If the business case requires devices to move around and staying in contact is mission-critical, a truly global connectivity option is required. At present, there are a couple of ways to achieve this. One option is cellular data. Due to the ubiquity of GSM mobile, you can now find 3G or 4G LTE data coverage almost anywhere in the world. However, you may need to use and manage multiple SIMs and contracts, and relying on mobile data can lead to spiraling roaming data costs. On top of that, there are still some areas of the world where there is nothing more than 2G mobile coverage, meaning devices set up for mobile data just won’t work.

The second option is to use a global IoT connectivity, such as that provided by Thingstream. Using the global GSM network, devices in more than 190 countries worldwide can connect to it as long as they are within reach of a GSM cell tower. Connected devices are ensured ubiquitous connectivity by connecting to the strongest GSM signal available. The network is accessible via 2G, 3G and 4G masts, making it possible to connect almost anywhere in the world, from big cities to the tiniest backwaters.

Happy trees: A perfect use case for Thingstream

When South African farmer Robert Carlton bought his 100-hectare macadamia nut farm in 2011, it presented him with a challenge: getting the right amount of water to each tree as and when required. To achieve this, he deployed moisture probes across the farm to collect the necessary data to inform the decision of how much water to use.

Despite having accurate data, this solution still presented Robert with problems. To know how much water was needed, he would have to drive out to the sensor, download the data and process it before deciding how much water was needed. This process in itself proved time consuming and costly. A wireless system was needed.

In remote areas such as the location of this farm, businesses are limited by what is available. In rural South Africa, that leaves very few options. Cellular data was tried first, but the process of topping up and managing multiple SIMs was still too inefficient and expensive.

A final working solution was found in systems integrator Pylot, who equipped each device with a Thingstream SIM card and software, allowing them to stay connected and report environmental conditions back to base in real time.

“I can now efficiently manage the irrigation of a 100 hectare farm and optimise machinery workflow, all from one cost effective and reliable IoT dashboard.”
– Robert Carlton-Shields, owner, R&K Estates Macadamia Farm

In finding the right solution, testing is key. It may seem obvious to test before choosing, but we’ve seen many cases where it has happened the other way around, often at a large cost. Other LPWA options were also considered and tested on the macadamia farm, but when it came to the critical topics of cost and coverage, this was the only immediately practical solution offering coverage of the whole farm.

“For IoT solutions out in the field there were previously two options. A LoRa network or a Sigfox solution. Both of these have significant challenges. With LoRa there’s a long and costly process of setting up a bespoke network. We’ve run into planning issues for the masts and this can be just to provide a trial of the service – it’s simply not quick enough or cost effective. With SigFox we’d be reliant on their network coverage – if you are lucky this is can be available in densely populated areas, but not a viable option for a remote farm covering hectares of land. Thingstream has a ubiquitous coverage footprint, is low power, cheap and can be up and running in hours. Combine that with the data collection and reporting platform they provide and this is an IoT revolution.”
– Trevor Hart-Jones, CEO, Pylot

Choose your IoT connectivity wisely

IoT connectivity is not a decision to be taken lightly. Every installation is different and must be assessed to find the best fit for the business case. Connectivity comes in many flavors and each has its merits; from the many available options, very few will actually be a perfect fit. The key takeaway here is to choose wisely based on research and testing. Making the wrong choice could bring the whole project back to square one.

All IoT Agenda network contributors are responsible for the content and accuracy of their posts. Opinions are of the writers and do not necessarily convey the thoughts of IoT Agenda.

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