The topic of the Internet of Things (IoT) is more prevalent nowadays in online tech discussions and "trends this year" articles than ever before. Beyond the wearables and home automation devices out there, what is IoT in a B2B context and what are the most prevalent wireless networks that connect them?
What is IoT?
The Internet of Things is the ability of physical devices to connect with each other through wireless networks, typically the Internet. Since 2015 the growth of IoT devices has been steadily increasing for applications ranging from consumer devices to healthcare, banking, retail and manufacturing. And the investments will continue to grow in the coming years which raises the question: What impact will the IoT have on a building's indoor wireless networks and what are the options to support the proliferation of these connected devices?
According to Cisco, only a fraction of devices that can connect to the Internet actually do, and the yearly growth of IoT devices in the next 5 years will average 28.5%(1). With this expected growth rate, the potential for expansion is massive and demands for wireless networks to support that expansion can be expected to significantly increase as well.
IoT as a productivity driver
Many of the IoT consumer devices available today like wearables and home automation devices often use your own smartphone's LTE connection or your home Wi-Fi network for wireless connection. The wireless performance required is often minimal so if you're looking to improve response times, chances are moving your Wi-Fi router to a more central location in the house will be a quick fix at zero cost to you. However, when dealing with larger-scale networks, like those often seen in the Enterprise, addressing performance issues is not so simple.
Despite the current abundance of consumer wearables and home automation systems, IoT devices are much more common in manufacturing, healthcare and business applications than they currently are in consumer environments. The Industrial Internet of Things, also known as IIoT, will be the biggest driver of productivity and growth in the next decade. It is estimated that investments in IIoT will reach $85B by 2020(2) with an annual growth rate of 28.5%(1). By the end of 2020, it’s projected that close to 50%(3) of new IoT applications built by Enterprises will leverage an IoT platform that offers outcome-focused functionality based on analytics gathered by their IoT inventory.
What are some of the benefits Enterprises are hoping to see? Consumer expectations are shifting in the online marketplace – they want simplicity, speed and quality, and Enterprises are looking towards IIoT to help them deliver. Many of them are looking to the IoT to improve the accuracy, speed, and scale of their supply chains and to redefine quality management, compliance, traceability and business intelligence.
They also see IIoT delivering potential benefits such as increased efficiency through data captured about their processes and products with the use of sensors. In some cases IIoT also allows automation of some processes that can improve time-to-market, measure performance and rapidly respond to customer needs. Risk Management and Safety Compliance can also be impacted with a larger IoT inventory by identifying areas that require attention, flagging irregularities, and issues much more quickly than humans can. Another key driver is the increasing use of automated mobile equipment in manufacturing facilities. Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) can now deliver components to production cells in manufacturing plants where forklift drivers used to accomplish this task.
IoT and Wireless
Reliable indoor wireless coverage is essential to any IoT application in an Enterprise environment. Mobile operators do have a part to play in supporting the wireless infrastructure used by some IoT devices however it's expected their focus will be on devices which are close to or completely outdoors, often in a setting where the tracking of a mobile vehicle is required. The cellular signal may not be able to penetrate deeper in the building so when talking about manufacturing or industrial production most of the indoor wireless networks will be the responsibility of the Enterprise and/or the building owner. Properly planning and deploying these networks can be costly to their bottom line if not done properly right from the start. Using the right tools and components is key to ensure adequate performance and future-proofing to avoid costly upgrades later on.
So how do all these devices connect together and which network types are best for a particular application? First thing to look at is the type of IoT device that will be used and the mobility of said device, as this will be key in determining which network protocol is most suitable.
Here is an outline of the more common options available:
Bluetooth (IEEE 802.15.1)
- Bands: 2.4 GHz
- Range: Short - 10 meters
- Ideal for small devices
- Used in medical devices and industrial sensors
- Low power requirements, ideal for wearables
- Bands: Below 1 GHz
- Range: High - 25+ km (depending on line-of-sight)
- Indoor/outdoor coverage
- Secure, can transmit encrypted data at different frequencies and bit rates
- Specifically built for IoT
- Low power
- Industrial usage and Smart Cities
- Bands: Below 1GHz / 4G-LTE
- Range: Very high - Global
- Ideal for tracking moving objects over long distances
- Indoor / outdoor coverage
- High security provided through SIM chip
- Can use legacy 2G-3G networks if LTE is unavailable
- Location services provided through cell tower positioning, cheaper than GPS
- Works during power failures
NB-IoT (Narrowband IoT)
- Bands: 180-200kHz
- Range: High - 35 km
- Focused on indoor coverage
- Uses subset of LTE
- Low cost and low power, high battery life
- Deeper penetration in-building but more complex to implement
- Bands: 868 MHz (Europe), 902 MHz (US)
- Range: High - 3-10 km in urban settings, 30-50 km in rural areas, up to 1,000 km in line-of-site
- Ultra narrow band with minimal interference
- Low power, high battery life
- Requires a mobile operator to carry the generated traffic
- Star network topology (using base stations)
- Bands: 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz
- Range: Medium - 100 meters
- Widely available in public places
- Easy to implement, easy to use short-range wireless connectivity with cross-vendor interoperability
- Zero spectrum cost
Zigbee (IEEE 802.15.4)
- Bands: 2.4 GHz
- Range: 100 meters
- Industrial applications and some home products
- Low power requirements
- Secure with 128-bit encryption
- Bands: Below 1 GHz
- Range: 30 meters
- Popular with consumer IoT devices
- Applications in home automation (used by Amazon Echo)
- Most open development environment for smart products (using ITU-T G.9959 global radio standard)
In summary, we are still in the early stage of the massive investment in IoT devices that is to come in the next few years. Whichever application IoT devices and sensors will be used in it will undoubtedly put a strain on the underlying wireless networks if they have not been designed to handle the explosion of connected devices. Furthermore, selecting the most suitable wireless network requires a thorough understanding of each IoT devices' requirements in order to ensure the network will not only perform adequately when first deployed but will be able to handle any projected growth in following years.
Feel free to download the infographic below for a quick reference guide on the most used wireless networks for IoT devices.
Sources used as a reference in this blog: