IoT connectivity: A comprehensive guide
When planning how to implement IoT solutions into your business, IoT connectivity will surely come up. As a broad—and sometimes complex topic—it can be challenging to understand exactly what connectivity option makes the most sense for your situation. Perhaps you’re looking for an option that provides the most reliable network service. Or maybe, range is the most important factor for your IoT devices. Here, we break down all you need to know about IoT connectivity.
Jump to what you need:
- What is IoT connectivity?
- Where does IoT connectivity fit into an IoT ecosystem?
- 7 key elements of IoT connectivity
- IoT connectivity solutions
What is IoT connectivity?
Generally, IoT connectivity describes the methods that can be used to connect all of the elements of an IoT ecosystem — everything from applications, sensors, trackers, gateways, and network routers. To break it down further, IoT connectivity allows devices to transmit and receive data. As such, it’s a critical component of any IoT ecosystem and cannot be overlooked. You could also think about it as the “invisible link” that turns devices into smart devices. Basically, it allows the devices to do what they’re designed to do.
WiFi and cellular are two common connectivity options—and ones many are familiar with since most of us come into contact with them each day. But there are plenty of other options too, including Ethernet, bluetooth, and low-power, wide-area networks (LPWANs).
For decades, IoT connectivity was largely dependent on the same cellular technologies and data plans that were originally designed for 2G, 3G, and LTE-capable phones. However, in recent years, connectivity solutions have started to shift and broaden, creating more options for connecting IoT devices to the internet.
Where does IoT connectivity fit in an IoT ecosystem?
Within an IoT ecosystem, there are seven key components to consider: the devices, the application—or software—in the devices, security, the gateway, the way the devices are used, the users, and, of course, connectivity. As the word implies, IoT connectivity connects all of these different parts. You can think about it a bit like plumbing, no matter how state-of-the-art a toilet or sink you might have is, without sufficient pipes connecting it to the sewage system, it’s basically useless. As explained in a previous Hologram blog post, “It doesn’t matter how advanced a device is if its connectivity is unreliable.”
Suggested reading: The 7 key components of the IoT ecosystem
7 key elements of IoT connectivity solutions
While, in theory, each connectivity solution does the same thing, they all do it differently. As such, they have different strengths and weaknesses. Some options provide a broader range and coverage, whereas others may excel with fast bandwidth. A person who’s looking for an extremely reliable connection may look for a device with a connectivity solution that’s very different from a person who’s looking for mobility. Let’s dive into seven different elements to consider when deciding on a connectivity solution.
1. Range and coverage
In an IoT ecosystem, range and coverage considers the question of distance and space. Will there be appropriate signal everywhere that devices deploy? It’s one of the most crucial factors to consider when choosing the right IoT connectivity solution. Picture the difference between an IoT device used solely within a hospital—maybe even just a single room of the facility—compared to the devices used to monitor and track shipping fleets traveling all across the country. The desired connectivity solution is going to be very different in these cases.
2. Power consumption
Power consumption is another important aspect to understand when choosing the right IoT connectivity solution. If range and coverage considers distance, power consumption considers time. Many IoT devices are battery-powered, and some are not rechargeable. If the connectivity solution consumes too much power, the device may die prematurely. Depending on the IoT ecosystems, one device powering off could knock out the whole thing. For this reason, it’s best to consider the entire lifecycle of an IoT device and your use case, then choose a connectivity option that’s well suited for it.
Bandwidth is defined as the maximum amount of data that can be transmitted over an internet connection in a specific range of time. Some IoT ecosystems may not need a solution with a large bandwidth because the system only sends small amounts of data. Of course, on the other hand, some systems may transmit and receive significantly more data and require a connectivity solution designed for this.
When considering bandwidth, it’s also important to know if the solution will require sharing bandwidth with other customers or people. In these cases, bandwidth can become less reliable if everyone is sending data at once.
You probably already know that some connectivity options are more mobile than others. Think about the difference between ethernet, wifi, and cellular. Connection via ethernet is often confined to a room (or as far as the cable can take you), WiFi offers a bit more movement as it usually works anywhere throughout a home or office building, and cellular offers even greater mobility.
If your IoT devices will be transmitting data at high speeds or while moving—think in a fleet management system or WiFi on public transportation—you’ll need a connectivity solution designed to handle this type of data transfer.
Though the world of IoT connectivity offers so many benefits, it can open up your organization to vulnerabilities. Security has to be at the forefront of any IoT deployment, and especially in situations where sensitive data is being received or transmitted. For example, a hospital using IoT devices that transmit and receive confidential patient data may require a significantly more secure network than a farmer using IoT devices to monitor a crop field. Some IoT connectivity solutions are more secure than others, making it an integral consideration when determining the option that makes the most sense for your use case.
Do you expect your IoT deployment to change over time? If yes, will your connectivity solution make growing and adapting your deployment possible? For example, how easy is integrating more trucks into your route if you’re using IoT for fleet management? Even if you don’t expect your IoT ecosystem to change, no one can ever truly predict the future. A connectivity solution that allows your deployment to scale should you need it is never a bad idea.
7. Network redundancy
To understand network redundancy, think about your cell phone. Many smartphones these days default to WiFi when you’re at home or in your office, but should the network go down, nearly instantaneously jump to cellular. While this is not exactly how every IoT device and connectivity solution works, it serves to display a very important consideration: network redundancy. Losing connection is not only frustrating, but it can also be extremely costly or even dangerous depending on the use case. Choosing a connectivity option with built-in redundancy ensures that there’s always a backup ready. Hologram SIM cards connect to over 470 networks, and when one is experiencing a weak signal, it automatically connects to the next best available network.
IoT connectivity solutions
You’ve likely gathered that every connectivity solution isn’t built the same. Some are more equipped for mobility and range, whereas others are more secure or have higher bandwidths. While there may not be one “perfect” solution that can do everything, there is likely a perfect solution for each business or device—one that can do everything you need it to. Let’s take a look at a few different connectivity solutions and how they compare.
Suggested reading: Eight common IoT connectivity technologies & use cases
We’ve already talked a bit about cellular networks, and you’re likely familiar with them, at least to some extent. As the tool used to connect phones, tablets, and even some smartwatches to the internet, cellular networks are already a big part of many people’s lives.
One of the biggest benefits of a cellular IoT system, and one you likely take advantage of most days, is that cellular networks allow for mobility. In the same way your cellphone works as you move from your home to your office to the grocery, the same is true for IoT devices that connect through a cellular network. For this reason, cellular networks are ideal for highly mobile IoT use cases like fleet management, autonomous vehicles, wearable health trackers, or logistics. However, it’s not just mobile use cases that can benefit from cellular networks.
The infrastructure for cellular networks is already largely established, which can save many businesses a lot of money and makes it easy to scale IoT deployment over time. Cellular networks are also more secure with a larger range than WiFi. The advantages of cellular connectivity continue to grow each day with new developments in technology, and there are very few use cases where this connectivity option wouldn’t work.
Ethernet’s biggest advantage is that it often has a high bandwidth, offering data transfer speeds up to 10 Megabits per second. This can also be a relatively inexpensive option if you have the infrastructure already set up. However, ethernet is extremely static, decreasing the number of businesses or organizations that can benefit from it. Wired connections are also much more difficult to scale, making them less useful for IoT deployments that may evolve over time.
You’re probably pretty familiar with Wi-Fi, since like cellular, a lot of people use it every day. Wi-Fi excels in certain areas, like the fact that cost remains the same no matter how much data is transferred, and it usually offers the possibility to scale. However, it can be unreliable and has a very limited range. Wi-Fi can be a solid connectivity option for smart gadgets around a house but doesn’t often make as much sense as cellular for most other use cases.
Recommended reading: Wi-Fi vs. Cellular: Your 2021 Comparison Guide
Bluetooth has a low bandwidth and significantly small range, making it generally only appropriate for small, battery-powered devices. With low power consumption, this connectivity option works well for consumer goods like fitness trackers that connect to a phone.
Low-power, wide-area networks (LPWANs) like SigFox or LoRaWAN keep power consumption low by transmitting much smaller data packages at infrequent intervals. This type of technology emerged around 2010 specifically developed for large-scale IoT deployments, for example, on a farm that is using IoT to monitor crops. Generally, this type of connectivity makes sense for deployment in remote areas.
Soon after SigFox and LoraWAN were developed, NB-IoT, which stands for narrowband IoT, came into play. While NB-IoT is technically a LPWAN it also falls under the cellular category. This is because it operates on a very narrow bandwidth (180 kHz), a portion of the LTE spectrum which is typically unused. LPWANs can come in handy in certain situations, particularly when a user is in need of low-cost IoT deployment in more remote areas.
Recommended reading: What is LPWAN? (low-power wide-area network)?
Count on reliable cellular IoT connectivity with Hologram
IoT connectivity is an integral element of any IoT ecosystem and a consideration that cannot be overlooked. When choosing a connectivity solution, it’s important to consider the different elements of connectivity including coverage and range, bandwidth, and power consumption. Hologram’s global IoT SIM cards let you harness the best of cellular while providing built-in redundancy, automatic carrier switching, and data plans to match your business needs with pay-as-you-go, monthly, and custom options. Get started today.