The Internet of Things (IoT) wouldn't exist without connectivity. Like a sink connected to a water line or a lamp plugged into an outlet, a device within an IoT ecosystem will only work if it is connected to other devices and technologies. Luckily, there are several types of connectivity technologies to choose from. Selecting the best one comes down to understanding your power consumption, range, and bandwidth needs.
Let's dive into eight common IoT connectivity technologies and their most frequent use cases.
You don't need to be familiar with IoT to know about cellular networks. Cellular networks are already part of everyday life. They power most phones and other popular devices like certain tablets and smartwatches. Instead of needing a brand new network to connect the various devices in your IoT project, cellular connectivity allows you to piggyback off established mobile network infrastructure.
There are many benefits to a cellular IoT system, including wide-range coverage, reliability, and higher levels of security compared to Wi-Fi or other connectivity options. Cellular connectivity is often the ideal choice for highly-mobile IoT systems. It is also a great alternative to low power wide area networks (LPWAN), like Sigfox and LoRaWAN, that operate on unlicensed bands. Let's look at some possible use cases for cellular connectivity.
- Point of sale and kiosks - Vending machines, kiosks, and other points of sale systems won't need Wi-Fi or a wired internet connection if they operate on a cellular network. This allows more opportunities for those in the retail industry to serve customers in places where Wi-Fi isn't reliable or accessible.
- Delivery tracking- Cellular connectivity can be used to track real-time delivery and ensure accurate arrival time estimates. When transporting materials needed for other parts of a logistics or supply chain, it's important to have reliable information as to where the goods are at any given point. Using an IoT SIM with automatic carrier switching means connectivity will never be lost, even if the cargo is in the middle of the ocean.
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2. High data rate cellular (3G/4G/LTE/5G)
Offering impressively fast mbps, high data rate cellular connectivity is a perfect choice for data-heavy IoT applications, highly mobile devices, and real-time video streaming. With similar benefits to other cellular networks — think wide coverage, reliable access, established infrastructure — high data rate cellular provides even faster data rates and larger bandwidths.
As 5G deployment continues, IoT devices connected across a wide area, also known as "massive IoT,” will become a reality, connecting thousands of IoT devices across large areas.
- Fleet management - Use cellular connectivity to track your fleet in real-time and make better business decisions. Reroute around accidents, optimize fuel consumption, and cut idle time.
- Health monitoring - Wearable and implantable health monitors — like those that monitor cardiac or diabetic health — can send real-time, critical data back to healthcare centers regardless of the wearer's movements.
- Mobile Wi-Fi - More and more, it's becoming common to find Wi-Fi in moving vehicles like buses, trains, motorhomes, and even some cars. Using an onboard modem with a SIM card and router, Wi-Fi has never been so mobile.
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The dominant wired connection option, ethernet, can be a cheap and reliable way to connect your IoT devices if you already have the required infrastructure to hook your devices up. With low latency, ethernet is a particularly attractive option when you need a strong connection with little lag.
Ethernet generally offers speed and robustness — things like floors, walls, or the length of a room won't interfere with the connection. Still, without established infrastructure, wired connections can be difficult to scale and often requires plenty of advanced planning to implement. As a result, ethernet is most suitable for stationary devices; some common uses include:
- Security cameras - At a business or home where security cameras are in use, an ethernet connection can be a simple way to reliably connect cameras and stream real-time footage without worrying about signal drops.
- Game systems - Many gamers prefer using ethernet connections because it minimizes lag and provides strong reliability.
- Stationary medical devices - Some medical devices, particularly ones that stay put in a specific room or location in a doctor's office or hospital, may use ethernet to quickly and reliably transmit data to an online health records management system.
Since many people use Wi-Fi every day in a home or office setting, you're likely familiar with many of the pros, including the ability to secure the network in private settings and the absence of cost limitations on the amount of data transferred. Similarly, the cons — its unreliability and limited range — are also well-known. Situations where Wi-Fi makes the most sense include:
- Smart gadgets - Everything from smart TVs, lightbulbs, and fridges can easily operate using your established Wi-Fi network. If your IoT ecosystem is confined to a specific area — like in a home or an office — Wi-Fi may be a simple and effective option.
- Digital Signage - Popular in restaurants and commercial spaces, Wi-Fi is a great choice for digital signage since the screens typically remain in one place. Because many of these stores will already have a Wi-Fi router installed, it may be the easiest and most cost-effective connectivity option.
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Particularly prevalent in the consumer goods market, Bluetooth is another connectivity option that works well for small, battery-powered devices. On the downside, Bluetooth's range is small—usually about 30 feet. If you've ever worn a pair of Bluetooth headphones, you know you can't walk too far away from your phone or audio device before the connection drops. Besides imposing even tighter physical restrictions than Wi-Fi, Bluetooth also often has a lower bandwidth.
However, there are plenty of areas where Bluetooth might have a leg up on other connectivity options, including reliability and portability (if you can take all of your Bluetooth-enabled devices with you). With Bluetooth low energy (BLE) devices, you'll also get the added benefit of low energy consumption, meaning your devices can run on small batteries for longer amounts of time.
- Smartwatches or fitness trackers - Often connected to a cell phone, Bluetooth-enabled smartwatches and other fitness trackers provide quick data transfers back to an app a user can then look at on their phone. Because a wearer may go anywhere, Bluetooth connectivity makes a lot of sense if they're also carrying their phone. A BLE-enabled device will also minimize the number of times a user has to recharge their watch or tracker.
- Sensors in small areas- Whether they measure temperature, light, or movement, many sensors transmit data through Bluetooth. Bluetooth-enabled sensors can be ideal in a small business or home setting when tracking data over a period of time.
- Fragrance diffusers - Perfect for homes or small retail spaces taking advantage of scent marketing, Bluetooth fragrance diffusers make it easy to control and monitor the timing and intensity of smell.
6. Mesh Protocols (ZigBee, Z-Wave, Thread)
Like Bluetooth, mesh protocols like ZigBee, Z-Wave, and Thread are most frequently used in domestic and consumer products. Generally, these networks work well in medium-range settings — for example, across an entire home — when you want to connect multiple devices.
By creating a "mesh" network, otherwise described as a decentralized network, each in-range device can communicate with any other device. This is particularly beneficial if one device drops out of the network. Since all of the devices are connected, losing one won't impact the network's overall strength. These networks are often deployed when linking and automating smart devices so that when one meets certain conditions, another activates.
- Home automation - If you're looking to live in the ultimate smart house, where all of your devices automatically do what you want when certain conditions arise, mesh networks are often the way to do it. Devices like security systems, lightbulbs, or outlets, may be compatible with mesh networks.
- Environmental monitoring - Mesh networks are becoming more and more popular in the agricultural and environmental industries for devices such as smart irrigation systems and water filtration systems.
Networks like SigFox, LoRaWAN, NB-IoT, LTE-M, or RPMA are all classified as low power wide area networks (LPWANs). Unlike cellular or Wi-Fi networks, LPAWNs support much smaller data transfers in infrequent intervals over wide areas. This keeps them power-efficient and makes them ideal for expansive IoT projects. Optimized for low-power consumption, you won't have to constantly change a sensor or device's batteries — a task that can be demanding and costly.
On the flip side, since LPWANs send small amounts of data infrequently, they're not the best option for high-bandwidth projects or those that are time-sensitive. Below are some places LPAWNs might make sense:
- Smart parking garages - By sending simple messages when values change, sensors placed throughout a parking garage could be used to inform attendants and customers of open spaces and capacity limits.
- Small shared rental vehicles - Similarly, sensors could be placed on small rental vehicles, like bikes, scooters, or mopeds to track the vehicle's location. This could be particularly helpful if a customer does not have to return the vehicle to the same place they picked it up.
Particularly relevant in logistics and retail industries, using Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags, companies can take advantage of radio waves to send small amounts of data to a nearby reader. Unlike LPWANs these data transfers happen between very short distances. Stakeholders can attach RFID tags to various products and optimize their supply chain management while keeping a close eye on inventory and assets.
- Smart shelves - Smart shelves use RFID tags and readers to track inventory in a retail setting automatically. In addition to cost and efficiency benefits, this also allows employees to monitor the store remotely and promptly resolve or mitigate any issues.
- Smart mirrors - Smart mirrors can augment fitting rooms for an interactive and efficient experience. Once inside the dressing rooms, smart mirrors use RFID technology to track the item a customer is trying on and display other available sizes, colors, or complimentary items.
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