I recently returned from the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona and was amazed by the number of new sensors, devices and technologies on offer. Mobile connectivity is no longer just about cell phones. Now, everything from augmented reality glasses to connected cars are improving lives in every industry from healthcare to retail. But all of these new technologies have one common need: bandwidth. Complex technologies often need to move lots of data, sometimes up to one gigabyte per second, even from austere environments. Coming back to Amsterdam, I sat down with a team of IoT leaders from across Europe and asked a seemingly simple question: “How can all these devices be connected?”
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It is an exciting time for mobile connectivity, with new technologies, processes and protocols introduced seemingly every day. Given the diversity in devices, it is perhaps not surprising that there are many different options for connecting IoT. There are new protocols for IoT devices built on shared spectrum or cutting-edge processes, such as space division multiplexing. All the while, familiar standards such as cellular are getting exciting new upgrades like 5G that will offer significant new features. But this wide variety of choices makes it difficult for organizations to choose the right connectivity for their specific business use case.
So how do you determine which connectivity technology is right for you? Before making any decision, it is important to understand what you are choosing between, that is, what are the different factors that govern performance of connectivity. These factors include:
- Max range
- Max data throughput
- Power consumption
- Encryption and security
- Scalability (via network topology)
- Cost of manufacture and sustainment
Just reading through this list, it should become clear that these factors are not independent. Rather, they tend to vary together. For example, if you increase data throughput, you may lose range or increase cost. Increase range and you will cause a corresponding increase in power consumption. A change to one parameter induces changes in other parameters. As a result, connectivity options tend to cluster into three main groups: wired, short-range wireless and long-ranged wireless technologies.
Even though wired solutions might seem “outdated” at first view, they can turn out to be important connectivity options in the IoT context. Wired solutions provide very high data rates at very low cost, albeit without much mobility.
Short-range IoT connectivity technologies are used to transfer data over short physical distances. The distance between the sensor or device that collects data and the gateway that processes the data is usually less than 150 meters.
The strength of short-range wireless solutions, then, is low power consumption and small size, but at the trade-off of shorter range and often smaller bandwidth.
Long-range wireless solutions come in two main flavors: cellular- and non-cellular-based solutions. Both of these offer greater range and bandwidth than shorter range options, but often at higher power consumptions and cost.
You define what is ‘best’
With such a wide range of connectivity options, each with different strengths and weaknesses, there is no single best solution. Some options may be very well-suited to one particular use case while being a poor choice for others. Therefore, choosing a connectivity solution — or any IoT technology for that matter — is not a case of finding the best technology, but rather finding the right fit for your business case.
Take the example of precision agriculture. To be able to monitor sensors spread across many acres of fields, this use case needs long range, but it does not need to transmit large amounts of data, so throughput can be small. Finally, the small margins of farming mean that it must also come at low cost. All of this taken together mean that non-cellular, long-range wireless solutions such as low-power wide area networks (LPWAN) would be good choices. On the other hand, take the example of medical devices. These need to transmit only a short distance — from the wearer to a phone for example — but must be small enough to wear comfortably and so require small power consumption and high reliability. This makes short-range connectivity solutions such as LTE NB-IoT or Cat M1 a good choice. Connected cars offer yet another profile. These require high data rates and long ranges. However, they also have access to near unlimited power from the car, so cellular-based long-range wireless would be a good choice.
Technology serves business, not the other way around
Choosing between connectivity options does not have to be terrifying or confusing. The key is to start by think about your business, not by thinking about technology. After that, your business needs can be a ready guide to technical choice after choice.
So what advice did our team of experts in Amsterdam come up with to help you navigate these choices? Three simple ideas to keep in mind:
Think about your business — While finding the shiniest new technology may be attractive, finding the right technology can only begin once you understand the needs of your particular use case and what you want it to achieve.
Think about funding — Once you have the chief business goal you want IoT to accomplish, it is also helpful to consider how to achieve that goal over time and how to pay for it. Generally speaking short-range and LPWAN solutions require more Capex, whereas cellular may require more recurring Opex. Furthermore, it is important for any organization to ensure future flexibility and avoid a lock-in and high cost of change caused by vendor lock-in to one specific set of hardware.
Think about scaling — Finally, don’t forget to consider how an IoT system will grow and change over time. While a current solution may not need high bandwidth now, what about in the future with technologies like AR/VR? While a smart warehouse system may tolerate high latency now, consider what will happen in the future if robots or self-driving forklifts are added.
Choosing the right connectivity technology does not have to be difficult. Understanding the performance factors and a few simple guidelines can demystify the process. But the secret to choosing connectivity — like any part of IoT — is about focusing on your business not on the technology.
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