What is an IoT network?
To launch a successful IoT project there should be a reliable connection (IoT networks) between devices/sensors and your IoT platform. But how to choose the network technology that will be a good match for your project? So let’s’ define what is an IoT network first.
IoT network is the network with physical interconnected objects embedded with sensors, smart devices that connect and exchange data with other devices and systems without human intervention.
The second thing to pay attention to is understanding your business requirements and application goals, afterward, you can move forward with selecting the type of wireless network and IoT protocol technology based on the following criteria:
- The coverage area
- Power consumption
- The density of the objects
- Amount and nature of data
- The device environment
Considering the abovementioned criteria that have to be determinant factors for your solution you need to focus on your specific use case. Let’s explore the main types of wireless networks to help you evaluate each for your decision making and choosing the best tech stack.
Four types of IoT wireless networks
1. Cellular: LTE-M vs. NB-IoT
LTE-M and NB-IoT both belong to low-power wide-area networks (LPWAN) and both can operate in a 4G band. These open standards were both introduced by 3GPP (3rd Generation Partnership Project), and are designed for reliable, secure, low power operations but they differ in frequency, range, security, cost, and power consumption. Nevertheless, they are considered to be one of the most popular solutions for IoT since they can cover large areas.
Being a solid solution in the mobile consumer market, they have been evolving, providing reliable and high bandwidth IoT connectivity. By 2026, NB-IoT and LTE-M will cover over 60% of the 3.6 billion LPWA network connections.
LTE-M is also known as Cat-M1, is a radio technology standard that allows the reusing of LTE installed bases and is optimized for higher bandwidth and mobile connections, including voice over the network. It requires more bandwidth and is more costly than NB-IoT, but it supports massive connection density and low device power consumption.
On the other hand, the LTE-M standard is a bit more expensive compared to NB-IoT as it requires a gateway.
LTE-M use cases: asset tracking, wearables, medical, POS, and home security applications.
NB-IoT, also known as Cat-NB1, is a narrowband IoT protocol requiring fewer costs and less battery power consumption, however, it does not use traditional LTE physical layer but already established mobile networks. Compared to LTE-M, it has no full support for mobility but also supports a massive number of connections. It also provides better indoor and underground coverage than LTE-M.
NB-IoT is cheaper because its devices have longer battery life and do not need a gateway (the sensor data is sent directly to the primary server).
2. LAN/PAN: WiFi vs. BLE
Local area networks and personal area networks (LAN/PAN) are cost-effective, however, data transmission is limited due to the local environment. WiFi and Bluetooth belong to this category and are commonly used for IoT connectivity solutions.
With low-energy and low-power consumption, Bluetooth-enabled devices in combination with other electronic devices transfer data to the cloud. Yeah, you can see them widely incorporated in medical and fitness trackers, smart home devices the data of which are transmitted to smartphones.
The perfect use case for utilizing BLE devices is the retail industry. They are used to increase in-store customers’ experience and buying decisions through targeted beacon-triggered content on their smartphones (in-store navigation, special offers, discounts, events, etc. that are sent to customers within geographical proximity).
Bluetooth use cases: fitness tracking, beacons, home automation devices.
Due to its limitations in coverage, scalability, high power consumption, this technology is not so viable for large networks of battery-operated IoT sensors. WiFi refers to applications running in local or distributed environments with multiple access points connected to a power outlet. WiFi networks can be applied for:
- Smart home gadgets
- Digital signatures
- Security cameras
Wifi use cases: smart building, medical and fitness tracking, in-store beacons.
Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWANs) are a new set of wireless protocols that can literally connect all types of IoT sensors and facilitate numerous applications built specifically to support wide-ranging IoT projects. These networks can be used by devices to communicate over large areas with the help of small inexpensive batteries with low power consumption. In comparison with cellular networks, LPWANs are a cost-effective and long-term solution.
It seems that LPWANs is among the best networks; however, as each network has its pros and cons, the downside of LPWAN lies in the small data quantities it can send in a single instance so that it can be a good fit for use cases without high bandwidth.
Considering different purposes, there are licensed (NB-IoT, LTE-M) and unlicensed (LoRa, Sigfox) types of LPWANs. The main challenge for licensed LPWAN is power consumption; Quality-of-Service and scalability belong to the main issues when implementing unlicensed technologies.
In terms of range, Sigfox capabilities are among Wi-Fi and cellular. Sigfox does not need to acquire licenses due to the ISM frequency bands they use (Industrial, scientific, and medical).
Using the UNB technology (Ultra Narrow Band), Sigfox’s main focus is to manage low data-transfer speeds with extremely low energy consumption, plus this network is able to communicate with millions of battery-operated devices across 30-50 kilometers.
Sigfox use cases: Smart buildings and cities: water monitoring, occupancy utilization monitoring, remote assets monitoring.
Designed for large-scale public networks, LoRaWAN coverage is up to 15 km. With its extended range feature, LoRaWAN is a great solution for noisy industrial settings supporting millions of devices. LoRaWAN’s low power consumption well suits battery-powered IoT devices supporting them for 10 years.
LoRaWAN use Cases: remote asset condition monitoring and tracking (temperature, vibration, pressure), smart cities, smart lighting.
4. Mesh protocols
Due to short-range capacity, Mesh protocols are great solutions for mid-range IoT projects with the data transfers in close proximity. In Mesh networks, the communication between sensor nodes is conducted in a distributed way to reach the getaway which is the contrast approach of the data transfer to the central hub.
Mesh protocols are robust and popular solutions for in-building and street use like smart building automation (smart lighting, HVAC operations, security, and energy control, etc.), street lighting.
Zigbee is one of the most well-known mesh protocols used in IoT applications. When compared with LPWAN, Zigbee provides bigger data transfers with much less power efficiency due to its connectivity configuration. With Zigbee’s low-cost and low-power solutions, applications can be managed with inexpensive batteries for ten years.
Interconnectivity of the Zigbee network allows the connection of each device to the signal that passes it to the other devices via a mesh network. The risk of single-point signal failure is eliminated due to the capability of Zigbee devices to increase communication paths which facilitate interoperability and seamless connection with different vendors.
One more distinct feature of this protocol lies in its availability of unlicensed use everywhere across the world.
Zigbee use cases: automatic meter reading, tank monitoring, smart HVAC control, medical devices management, lighting management.
RFID protocol (Radio Frequency Identification) is mostly used for the asset tracking industry. Via wireless microchips embedded in IoT devices, transceivers send and receive radio waves in order to transfer small data amounts within small areas without line-of-sight. Acting as an access point RFID readers can receive and send messages to transceivers.
With RFID chips, retailers are entitled to improve procurement planning, optimize transport logistics, and get end-to-end data visibility across the entire supply chain ecosystem.
RFID use cases: fleet and asset tracking, automated checkout, medication monitoring, supply chain management, warehouse management, E-passport, human implants, security access control, payments.
How to select the most suitable IoT network?
The form of use case plays a determinant role in selecting the appropriate IoT network for your IoT application. So, let’s take a look at the most important criteria:
- Power Consumption. If you’re looking for longevity and a solution without the need to supply a device with power, Bluetooth and LPWAN are the networks suitable for this case. Technologies with a high-power consumption like Wi-Fi is not recommended.
- Coverage Area. The size of the area that needs to be covered defines the type of protocol to be applied for your IoT project. Whereas LoRA is limited to national boundaries, the Sigfox network is available in 60 countries.
- Data amount. If you need to transmit small data quantities, there are solutions like BLE over a short distance or LPWAN for long-range data transfers. For big data amounts, we recommend Wi-Fi and GSM networks.
- Devices’ density. The selection of proper IoT protocol depends here on the need for geographical proximity whether on the need to be spread out. If the objects need to be connected closely to each other, WiFi will be a good option; in the case of proximity, LPWAN and GSM networks are recommended.
There is a diversity of available IoT network options on the market. The perfect unified connectivity solution would support low-power consumption along with the capability to transmit huge data quantities across long distances ensuring high security and low costs.
However, there is no one-size-fits-all solution that will remain economically viable for all smart businesses; each use case defines the criteria for IoT network selection: bandwidth, range, power consumption. Therefore, understanding the specifics of your use case and identifying requirements for your IoT project at each development stage will help drive decisions to choose the best-suited IoT network protocol for your project.
If you still have any questions on what IoT network solution will be best for your IoT project, contact us and we will help you in your decision-making.