Your guide to wireless tech for the internet of things
This week saw several deep dives into the current state of wireless for IoT. Basically wireless is set to edge out wired connectivity to account for 55% of communications chip shipments in 2018, according to a report by IHS Markit. That’s actually down a bit from the previous year, when 60% of the communications chips sold were for wireless tech. But the overall market for communications chips is rising as more and more devices need to talk to the internet or to each other.
This is only the beginning. The IHS report highlights five wireless technologies to watch; they are Wi-Fi (802.11ax), NB-IoT and LTE Cat M1, Bluetooth Mesh, LoRa, and 5G. I’ve covered all of these at various points in my tenure, but here’s a quick rundown of where they will win out and what they offer.
Bluetooth Mesh: This relatively new wireless tech is good for both consumer and industrial settings because it takes the ubiquity of Bluetooth (it’s on handsets everywhere) and gives it mesh capabilities to extend wireless range. That means customers can use Bluetooth devices to create a network that’s more resilient and can transfer data even when you want to talk to a device that’s more than 20 or 30 feet away. It’s also excellent for battery-powered devices since Bluetooth uses less power than Wi-Fi or cellular technologies. Startups are using Bluetooth Mesh for wayfinding, advertising, location tracking, and other new use cases, especially when they want to communicate with consumers using their mobile phones. You’ll see it in light bulbs, light switches, medical settings, and retail stores. You won’t see it when you need to transfer large amounts of data such as videos or imaging files because Bluetooth throughput is lower than other wireless technologies.
Wi-Fi (802.11ax): We all are familiar with Wi-Fi; Wi-Fi (802.11ax) is merely its latest iteration. It offers incredibly fast data rates and a technology that helps manage the way information is transferred over different Wi-Fi channels in an environment with lots of devices all talking at the same time. Without technology to manage multiple devices and help them share the spectrum, packets from a video stream might get delayed while packets for a sensor pass through. There are also other elements to this technology that help lower power consumption and boost capacity using multiple antennas. Basically Wi-Fi under this standard is really fast and a lot smarter than it used to be. Smarts are good when the network is handling dozens of devices.
NB-IoT and LTE Cat M1: These are two cellular standards for sending relatively small amounts of data over cellular networks. They are part of a class of wireless technologies that can create Low-Power Wide-Area Networks (LPWANs). NB-IoT has crazy low data rates (as in, you can only send 250 kilobits per second) while its cellular cousin, LTE Cat M1, sends a bit more data at 1 Mbps. While they are often lumped together, LTE Cat M1 is closer in nature to the cellular data we know and love, and cellular operators can deploy it quickly over their existing LTE networks. NB-IoT requires a bit more maneuvering at the cell tower, including equipment and software upgrades. It’s not a giant leap, but it’s a bit more work.
Because these are cellular technologies they can provide coverage over wide areas, ensure the security of the communications network, and make sure there’s someone you can call when network problems arise, all while consuming less energy than Wi-Fi or traditional cellular. However, the modules are still expensive (carriers are working with chipmakers to get to a $ 5 price point for modules) and working with a carrier to get good pricing can be a challenge. You’ll see shipping companies, fleet management companies, and any industry tracking global or nationwide shipments of high-value items use NB-IoT and LTE Cat M1. Medicine is also going to use these and other LTE technologies for certain FDA-approved devices, especially those that go home with patients. You’ll also see the carriers support in-home security sensors using NB-IoT, especially in Europe.
Europe and Asia are the leaders right now in NB-IoT, while the U.S. carriers have focused first on deploying LTE Cat M1.
LoRa: If cellular LPWANs seems too expensive, Wi-Fi too battery-intensive, and Bluetooth Mesh too local, then LoRa is the tech for you. LoRa networks can transmit a little bit of a data a long way. How much data they can send depends on how they are tuned for power consumption and distance, but it’s roughly 25 kbps or even less. While LoRa is an open standard, only one chip vendor (Semtech) makes the radios, so some companies are reluctant to rely on a network where all devices on that network will need a product from a single vendor.
LoRa networks also require gateway devices and someone to manage the network. That’s why we see companies such as Comcast and even carriers creating LoRa-based networks for clients. The technology is generally better for devices that don’t need to ping the network more than a few times a day, so it’s less than ideal for tracking frequently used objects, and will likely be used on private campuses. You’ll see LoRa used in warehouses, campuses, and possibly on farms for getting reads from sensors or devices that need to check in.
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