The 3 main network technologies for IoT Connectivity are:
- Standard Wireless Access – WiFi, 2G, 3G and standard LTE.
- Private Long Range – LoRA based platform, Zigbee, and SigFox.
- Mobile IoT Technologies – LTE-M, NB-IoT, and EC-GSM-IoT
There is no doubt that IoT is driving a lot of changes in connectivity (among many other infrastructure technologies). The rule that connected devices impose over networking technologies is not the same as in our mobile phones. Today we are in the middle of a technology change that we may not yet realize. As any transition, there are a lot of standard and legacy technologies fighting. The winner would be the connectivity of choice by the nearly 50 Billion devices.
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Whatever technology manufactures choose, the devices will come with built-in radios. This will allow the device to connect to the network. So, if you are a device vendor or a provider, you need to think about the restrictions and interoperability options that connectivity technology imposes over. So what can we expect from any technology?
Standard Wireless Access – WiFi, 2G, 3G and standard LTE
This is a no-brainer move. There are already plenty of devices that use this, such as:
- Gaming consoles
- Panic buttons
- Video surveillance
- Fleet tracking
- Industrial IoT
It’s an “obvious choice” for providers and consumers to continue using their current internet access (Wi-Fi, 2G, 3G, LTE, etc) as the primary network option for their home appliances.
As always, there is a catch, the power consumption is quite a thing for cordless devices. Most devices using this network access are statically connected to a power outlet (or big batteries).
In case of using a mobile network, another constraint is that their data plan acquired was thought for phones. This way it’s quite expensive if you are thinking in multiples devices per user.
So if you need to go live and/or reach out a worldwide mass market where direct internet access is required along with consumer devices large enough to hold a battery (or connected to a power outlet), then this is the choice as the network is already deployed.
Private Long Range – LoRA based platform, Zigbee, and SigFox
The requirements of low power connectivity opened a window to private companies to develop new networks with that specific constraint at their core which are IoT native.
These private wireless networks are used for the specific proprietary network. It’s also to deploy a network which allows third-party devices to connect and build an ecosystem.
The three leading technologies in this area are, LoRAWAN, Zigbee, and SigFox.
What is the difference between them?
LoRAWan is an alliance with an open approach. As any other LoRA based Platform uses LoRA chirp spread spectrum (CSS) radio modulation technology (own by Semtech). You can deploy a LoRAWan network without paying any royalties. The trick is that the only condition is that all devices using the network need to buy the LoRA chipset from them.
On the opposite approach, there is Sigfox, whose approach is to provide a proprietary network. You can not build one of your own. They provide the connectivity service for any device for a fee.
Zigbee is an IEEE 802.15.4-based technology built on the physical layer and media access control defined in that standard. It is intended for embedded applications requiring low power consumption and tolerating low data rates. Also, it is simpler and less expensive than Bluetooth (or a general wireless network as Wi-Fi). The drawback is that is mainly installed as short-range radio connectivity (as opposed to long-range options as LoRA, SigFox, and NB-IoT). But also, is not as widely adopted by device manufacturers.
Mobile IoT Technologies – LTE-M, NB-IoT, and EC-GSM-IoT
This is the response to proprietary Low Power technologies by the 3GPP. They are IoT centered flavors (or some kind of reduced versions) of the LTE standard which provides:
- Longer battery life (expected up to 10 years).
- Better coverage for IoT devices underground and deep inside buildings.
- Smaller module size – small as a penny.
- Lower costs – modules priced at well under $10
The one technology that is driving the NB-IoT adoption was presented by the GSMA and is the embedded SIM. eSIM enables devices like smartwatches, fitness trackers, and even glasses to have stand-alone mobile connectivity.
If you are a mobile operator, you have already invested in a mobile network. Most likely your LTE network is almost deployed, so you are going to support the IoT connectivity with power efficiency. Your obvious choice is to support one of these technologies.
If you are not a mobile operator, you need to add plenty of access points (or cell sites) and use Mobile Backhaul (MBH) to connect it to your backbone network. In essence is pretty much what you need to do with proprietary Low Power technologies. But the cost may not be the same. Another option is to partner with network owner and become MVNO or something in between.
Here is a table comparing the three most widely used LPWA standards, from a technological standpoint:
The three alternatives have their pros and cons. The decision of which technology to adopt, deploy and finally launch IoT services will depend on the type of approach you have on the matter. Device manufacturers can not wait until forever, they need to factor the pros and cons and support one technology (or more, but not infinite versions of their devices). For Service Providers will also depend on the type of network already deployed. The future will tell which technology will prevail. But certainly, that one will be pretty tight up with the mass market adoption of devices and wearables.
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