The Internet of Things (IoT) is revolutionizing our world as connected sensors provide the data that help us improve food production, optimize supply chains, combat climate change, and more. Once data is gathered from local sensors, it has to be transmitted back to the Internet so the data can be analyzed and key decisions made. There are numerous methods for transmitting that data, and selecting the right IoT connectivity solution for your application may seem daunting.
Here, we discuss tradeoffs between the most common IoT connectivity solutions, so you can better choose the right option for your particular use case. When making these comparisons, we evaluate IoT connectivity solutions according to the most important metrics:
Coverage: What is available given where your IoT devices will be deployed.
Data volume: How much data you need to send through the devices.
Price: How much you can afford to spend on device connectivity.
Other considerations, such as power consumption and latency (how quickly and/or frequently data needs to be transmitted) may also be important in your individual decision process.
We discuss how to approach these tradeoffs later in this piece.
At a glance: coverage, data volume, and price
The Figure and Table below show the most common connectivity solutions evaluated according to coverage, data volume, and price.
It’s important to note that newer large satellite systems, such as SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon’s Project Kuiper, are focused on providing lower-cost, more accessible broadband Internet access in remote areas and are not well suited for IoT applications, so they are not included in this comparison.
Figure 1: Evaluation of common connectivity solutions according to key metrics.
Table 1: A comparison of five of the most common connectivity solutions by select criteria.
A closer look at each solution
WiFi, Bluetooth, Mesh networks
Short range solutions, including WiFi, Bluetooth, and mesh networks such as Zigbee and Z-Wave are trusted solutions for delivering continuous and/or high throughput data over small distances, such as within a home, factory, or office building.
Their power consumptions vary and ranges are severely limited, however, making them ill-suited for outdoor, remote, or spread-out applications.
IoT devices that are deployed in urban or suburban areas are ideal candidates for cellular connectivity. They are supported by strong infrastructure, are simple to use, and are relatively inexpensive. They are also a good choice for time-sensitive or large data set applications that require higher throughput and lower latency. Cellular has a relatively long range, so it can transmit data across distances that WiFi or Bluetooth cannot.
However, cell range and coverage is limited compared to some LPWANs and especially satellite networks. Older cell networks such as 2G and 3G are also being sunset globally, a headache for IoT devices that are designed with them in mind.
Low-power wide-area network (LPWAN) technologies, such as Sigfox and the LoRaWAN protocol, are designed for relatively long-distance, low-volume data transfer. Given their range and low power requirements, they are well suited for connecting moderately distributed IoT devices, such as facility management systems or smart city infrastructure.
LPWAN solutions do not have infinite ranges however, making them unsuitable for applications in which devices are more than 10-40 km away from a gateway. They also require cellular backhaul and the use of LPWAN gateways, which limits where in the world they can be used.
Legacy satellite providers such as Iridium, Inmarsat, Orbcomm, and Globalstar have been around for decades and offer a broad range of connectivity solutions for various data volume and latency needs. For use cases that require higher data throughput or low-latency data transmission in remote areas, legacy providers are the only viable option. These solutions are extremely expensive, however, making them difficult to use at scale or for price-sensitive applications.
Even lower bandwidth offerings meant for IoT applications are many times more expensive than newer satellite solutions. The complex process of purchasing legacy satellite solutions can also be an obstacle for potential customers. Resellers, complicated pricing models with additional fees, and separate vendors for hardware, data, and support can make purchasing a legacy satellite solution a complicated process.
A number of newer “small sat” companies focused on providing IoT connectivity have joined the space-based ranks in the past few years. They offer lower prices while still providing largely global coverage (exact coverage and latency varies among companies). These companies have designed their solutions specifically for IoT applications in remote areas.
Cost and commercial availability of these solutions vary, however. Companies such as Swarm Technologies, Myriota, and Hiber all have commercially-ready products. Other smallsat IoT startups have not yet announced timelines for public release or pricing of their products.
The number of satellites that each company currently has in orbit also varies, which affects how quickly and frequently data can be transmitted (fewer satellites means fewer opportunities each day to transmit data). Swarm, for example, has 120 satellites currently in orbit; Myriota has 6; and Hiber has 3.
Choosing the right solution
There is no shortage of connectivity options to support the different needs and priorities of various IoT applications.
“But what if my situation and needs fall into multiple buckets?” While each solution has tradeoffs, there is a relative order in which you can consider your priorities. If your devices are used in locations outside of cell service, for example, you can immediately eliminate cell as a connectivity option.
The flowchart below is an oversimplification, but can be a helpful starting point to narrow down your options.
Figure 2: A starting point for how to narrow down your IoT connectivity solution choices.
The most important factor to consider is available coverage at your deployment location. For IoT devices operating within home or business settings, WiFi or Bluetooth might be the simplest solution. For longer range needs that stay relatively close to urban areas, cell networks or LPWANs are likely the answer. When IoT applications can utilize a terrestrial connectivity option, users should look at cost, power, and data volumes as secondary criteria to help make a decision.
For more remote IoT deployments that cannot use cell, the choice is among various satellite solutions, and data volume needs become the main driver. If your devices are sending large amounts of data and/or need near-instantaneous transmission, legacy satellite companies are necessary to meet your needs (though keep an eye on newer entrants who will be able to provide the same bandwidth and low latencies without the hassle that many associate with legacy satcom). For IoT devices used in remote areas that are sending less data, less frequently, the world of smallsat IoT companies opens up. Choosing among these companies becomes a matter of current coverage/ latencies, power, and price.
The future of IoT connectivity
With 75 billion IoT devices expected to come online by 2025, it is likely that we will continue to see innovation in existing connectivity options, and entirely new ones arise. Some tout the coming of universal 6G and beyond, while others maintain that space-based methods are the future. Understanding the tradeoffs of some of the most common IoT connectivity solutions available will help you find the right option for your use case today, and know what to keep an eye on as new technologies emerge.
About the Author
Swarm Technologies provides affordable satellite communications services to people and devices in remote regions, making data accessible to everyone, everywhere on Earth. Their uniquely small satellites allow them to operate the world’s lowest cost two-way satellite communications network. With low prices, global coverage, and easy-to-use hardware, Swarm is able to deliver maximum value across a range of industries and use cases.
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