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Choosing the Best Wireless Protocol for Your IoT Project

Choosing the Best Wireless Protocol for Your IoT Project

Table of Contents

An Introduction to the IoT

Let me ask you a question. Did you ever think you would be able to talk to your refrigerator? I certainly didn’t a decade ago. But, it’s true. YOU CAN.

The Internet of Things, or IoT, makes your otherwise “dumb” refrigerator “smarter” by giving it the ability to “listen” to you while communicating over the internet through wired or wireless technologies.

The IoT revolutionizes the universe of physical objects by imparting data processing, advanced analytics, and internet connectivity.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a broader term for the ever-increasing number of smart devices that can send or receive data over the internet.

The concept of a “smart home” is the epitome of the IoT and its application at a personal level. Using a mobile app or a website, you can adjust the thermostat temperature, turn on/off the lights, check the state of smoke detectors, unlock the doors, and even ring the doorbell because all of them are connected to a central hub where data is communicated over the internet.

Want to learn more about “Smart Homes”?

Check out our detailed article.

At the industrial level (IIoT), IoT works wonders by embedding billions of internet-enabled sensors and devices, emanating streams of data analyzed using AI (Artificial Intelligence) algorithms to improve operational efficiencies in manufacturing and distribution systems. This data enables analysts to predict potential machine breakdowns, optimize performance parameters, and prevent resource underutilization.

Learn more about the IIoT:

What are wireless technologies and why are they needed?

Wireless technology allows the devices to communicate without wires and cables over long distances. These technologies use RF (Radio Frequency) and IR (Infrared) waves.

Since the dawn of the twenty-first century, IoT technology has made possible the establishment of a vast, intricately interconnected network with over 20 billion devices throughout the world.

These devices can sense, process, transmit, and receive data over a network spanning millions of miles. These devices encompass various industrial sectors ranging from oil & gas, manufacturing, production, and service-based organizations such as banks, telecommunications, and hospitality, etc.

Notwithstanding, a secure connection is a must-have for these devices to communicate. And this constitutes the basis for IoT standards and protocol development.

Pros and cons of wireless technologies

Pros:

  • No need for hefty physical infrastructures like wires, cables, and antennas.
  • Wireless networks are relatively easy to install and cost-effective to maintain and supervise.
  • Data is transmitted or received instantaneously.
  • Relatively easy to detect faults and perform diagnostics as compared to wired networks.
  • Wireless networks allow users more mobility as the network can be easily mobilized and reinstalled.

Disadvantages:

  • As communication happens in open spaces, wireless technologies are deemed less secure.
  • They are relatively more susceptible to signal interference and hence, are more unreliable.
  • Data throughput can be affected in extreme weather conditions like storms etc.
  • Data speeds vary depending on the distance to the network.
  • Wireless technologies have a limited range.

Contemporary IoT wireless technologies and their applications

Let’s dive deeper into the realm of wireless technologies and try to fathom their functions and applications.

ZigBee

Owned by the ZigBee Alliance, an alliance of multiple companies which have developed and published this standard, ZigBee was conceptualized in 1998, standardized in 2003, and then revised in 2006.

As stated on their website, the ZigBee protocol is incorporated and deployed in millions of devices across the world.

Operating at a frequency of 2.4 GHz (Giga Hertz), the ZigBee protocol caters more to the industrial and manufacturing sectors, transferring data at lower rates and with ranges varying from 10 to 100 meters. ZigBee ensures a low-powered, low data rate, close-proximity, end-to-end IoT solution that is secure and easily scalable. The specification deployed is IEEE 802.15 WPAN and the normal data rate is 20, 40, and 250 kbps.

One of the disadvantages reported is the cost of joining the alliance and the certification requirements.

On its 15th anniversary, the ZigBee alliance launched “Dotdot”, which is an IoT basic language. Dotdot enables multiple smart devices to work coherently on the ZigBee network, Internet Protocol, and various others. Dotdot over thread technology has also been introduced, which is an IPV6 protocol allowing home device connectivity.

LoRaWAN

Just like ZigBee, LoRaWAN (Long Range Wide Area Network) is a proprietary technology developed by the LoRa Alliance, which is a non-profit organization. However, as the name suggests, LoRaWAN falls into the category of wide area networks, while ZigBee enables short-range communication. Hence, LoRaWAN is the preferred option for enterprises aiming to develop a wide area network for battery-powered IoT gadgets.

Fine-tuned for long-range communication, LoRaWAN deploys multiple sub-gigahertz frequency bands depending on the operational region. In North America, the 915 MHz band is used. 868 MHz for Europe, while the 169 and 433 MHz bands are also in use. The normal data rates vary from 0.3 kbps to 50 kbps.

Here is an article about the frequency details:

LoRaWAN is widely used for monitoring control devices and sensors deployed in large areas such as cities or localities. Using unlicensed radio bands, it can perform city-wide streetlamp control, management of agricultural farm control systems, and other environmental sensors.

Like ZigBee, LoRaWAN, not an open protocol, requires OEMs to purchase a membership to become part of the network. Further, the lack of hardware security is also a cause for concern as it uses software encryption.

WIFI

The Wi-Fi Alliance website states that WIFI :

Stands out as the most commonly used wireless technology.

Serves as the primary medium for worldwide internet traffic.

Has driven a staggering $3.3 trillion dollars in the global economic ecosystem.

Has seen unprecedented growth, with more than 4 billion devices shipping every year and 16 billion devices in use.

Developed by the Wi-Fi Alliance, WIFI, an acronym for Wireless Fidelity, is a wireless networking protocol based on the 802.11 IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) network standard. It has revolutionized the way people have communicated for over two decades. Using radio waves, WIFI allows multiple devices to connect to the internet in a home setting or business environment through a wireless router, which in turn links directly to your internet modem and functions as a hub to broadcast the internet connectivity to all the WIFI-linked devices such as cell phones, tablets, and TVs, etc.

WIFI allows relatively greater mobility within the network coverage, and the typical range varies from 125 feet to 250 feet.

As WiFi is the most sought-after wireless technology today, it is imperative that the network and data security be of top-notch quality.

Through WI-FI Protected Access (WPA), the WI-FI Alliance has been at the forefront of ensuring secure digital communications for individuals and enterprises by using Authenticated encryption, HMAC (Hashed Message Authentication Mode) with Secure Hash Algorithm (HMAC-SHA256), and Robust management frame protection. 

Bluetooth

This technology was named after a 10th-century Danish king, “Herald Blatand” where “Blatand” means “Bluetooth”.

BLE, or Bluetooth Low Energy, is a wireless communication protocol relying on short-range radio frequency waves in the 2.45 GHz spectrum and allows two devices to communicate with each other, allowing quick data transfers within short distances and at much lower energy consumption as compared to other protocols. Today, a myriad of PEDs (Personal Electronic Devices) employs Bluetooth technology. For example, wearable devices like headphones, air pods, or devices like wireless keyboards, mice, printers, webcams, etc.

The typical communication range for Bluetooth varies from 25 to 35 feet, and the data rate ranges from 1 Mbps to 5 Mbps.

Bluetooth-enabled devices use the “Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum” technique, which makes them much more secure and prevents hackers from eavesdropping.

Z-Wave

Z-Wave was introduced by Zensys, a Denmark-based company, in 1999. By creating a mesh network using low-power RF waves operating in the sub-1 GHz band, Z-Wave has revolutionized the world of residential and commercial building automation.

Z-wave is somewhat similar to WI-FI, which has been fine-tuned for smart home automation. The Z-Wave Alliance is an international conglomerate of more than 300 companies that are currently managing this technology. These companies have manufactured and introduced an astonishing number of more than 100 million smart devices working on Z-Wave.

These devices include but are not limited to various smart home devices like door locks, thermostats, lights, sensors, fan controllers, and security systems. You can use your smartphone, laptop, or tablet to control and monitor a Z-Wave system remotely or even locally, through a dedicated smart panel with a Z-Wave gateway serving as the central hub and controller.

The typical range for Z-Wave varies from 100-800 meters, while for Z-Wave LR, the range extends up to 1,600 meters.

LTE-M

 LTE-M stands for Long-Term Evolution for Machines, which is a low-power wide area network using radio frequency waves for M2M (Machine to Machine) and Internet of Things (IoT) applications. Backed and developed by 3GPP, LTE-M provides a perfect narrow-bandwidth mobile communication solution to enable devices such as sensors, actuators, regulators, and other industrial devices to transmit data while ensuring relatively less power consumption and high signal penetration.

LTE-M eclipses other IoT protocols in terms of providing reliable worldwide connectivity, which makes it the perfect choice for a live status update for fleet tracking, remote location coverage, asset tracking, alarm panels, and POS (point-of-sale) devices. In low-coverage remote locations where the LTE signal strength is low, the system can easily downgrade to 3G (WCDMA-Wideband code division multiple access) or 2G (GPS-General Packet Radio Service) to ensure connectivity.

Using a cell-tower positioning system, LTE-M also provides cost-effective basic location tracking facilities to OEMs for their devices.

A SIM, or Subscriber Identity Module chip, is embedded in the circuit board of every LTE-M device and the carrier keys are incorporated, which makes it one of the most secure IoT protocols out there as the keys cannot be altered without having physical access.

However, as a subscription to any of the cellular carriers is mandatory for SIMs to operate, the associated costs tend to be ongoing.

The latest release, 14, offers a data rate extended up to 4Mbps, providing enhanced mobility and reliability for the network.

Tabular view of various wireless protocols

OwnerFrequency (MHz)RangePower RequirementSecurityCompatibility
ZigBeeZigBee Alliance868-868.6 (EU)
902-928 (US)
10-100 meters line-of-sightLow power, Battery lessLow, Basic encryptionCompatible across ZigBee devices Dotdot OS
LoRaWAN
LoRa Alliance169,433,868 (EU)
915 (US)
Up to 6 miles or 10 kmsLow-powerBasic 64-128 bit encryptionDepends on OEM
LTE-MGSMA-_Cellular carriersLTE bands:
450-2350 (uplink)
GlobalBand DependentNSA AES-256Application dependent
BluetoothBSIG (Bluetooth Special Interest Group)240010-30 metersLow Power typically 100mW128 bit encryptionBluetooth devices
Z-WaveSilicon Labs908 (US)
868 (EU)
30-100 meters¬2.5mAAES 128Z Wave devices
Wi-FiWi-Fi Alliance2.4-6 GHz20-150 meters5-20 WattsWPA-3Wi-Fi devices

Elements required for an IoT project

Different IoT projects may require different hardware elements and may have different functions, but the underlying developmental structure remains the same.

We will discuss some of the key elements an IoT project must have.

Sensors

As the name suggests, a sensor is a device that detects a change in the physical state of any system and converts it into an electrical signal which is then transmitted to the central processing hub.

Sensors have various types i.e. optical, pressure, contact, acoustic, humidity, magnetic, chemical, and many more depending upon the physical change required to be detected.

Gateway

What is an IoT gateway and why is it indispensable?

Working as a bridge, an IoT gateway essentially serves as a central connecting hub for the IoT devices and links them to the cloud and to one another facilitating communication, and manipulating raw data into useful information using any of the communication technologies discussed earlier.

An IoT gateway also functions like a computing platform having built-in customized applications to manage devices, and data, ensure security, and various other gateway functions. 

For a more in-depth view of Gateways, Check out our detailed article::

What is the real range for gateways in different protocols?

Lora Gateways & their range:

Lora gateways, as the name suggests, are designed for IoT communications using the LoRaWAN protocol. Operating on low power, LoraWAN is able to transmit signals over long distances. These gateways usually transmit the sensor/actuator data from the device to the cloud.

The gateway range depends on several factors like buildings, trees, water bodies, and other infrastructure hurdles which negatively affect the range due to which, in urban areas, the range is comparatively low. Typical LoRaWAN gateways have ranges up to 3 miles or 5 km in urban settings and 10 miles or up to 15 km in rural settings.

Learn more about LoRaWAN Gateways and their range:

Various factors affecting the real range of gateways:

Infrastructure obstacles:

Good line-of-sight maximizes the range of a gateway. However, if it is affected by infrastructure obstacles like buildings or trees, then it is reduced due to interference and refraction.

Environmental Factors:

Certain environmental factors like heavy rains, storms, or snow can also severely affect the range of a gateway and weaken the signal strength. Hence, reducing the range of the gateway.

Specifications of a Gateway:

The specifications of a gateway also affect its range. These specs are selected based on various factors like scale and requirement of the project, cost-benefit analysis, and interoperability. For example, ZigBee gateways are normally short-range gateways operating within ranges of 30 to 40 meters while LoRaWAN gateways can communicate up to 15 km.

Platform

A platform in an IoT project performs the functions of linking various hardware components like sensors, actuators, and devices, managing various security protocols between hardware and software elements, and ensuring secure communication between users and devices.

Cloud

Data from various sensors/actuators or devices is stored on a single network of cloud storage servers. These sophisticated cloud storage servers can gather, process, analyze and archive the huge chunks of data being generated by various IoT components. These cloud servers are available 24*7 and can be accessed from anywhere around the globe.

Application

The application serves as the last building block in any IoT project. Applications are used to perform, manage and oversee specific functions in an IoT project. These can be customized for each project and its requirements like a smart building monitoring app or street lights control application.

The Go-To wireless protocol for your next IoT project

As we have explored in this article that the key aspect of choosing a perfect wireless technology for your IoT project is to pen down your requirements clearly so that you can focus only on viable options. These requirements can be the data transmission rate, operational range, power consumption, and the cost of the whole project.

But in real-time, there will always be some sort of give-and-take scenarios where you might have to compromise on some factors. For example, a long operational range requires increased power consumption levels and hence an increased associated cost.

Therefore, you need to chalk out your design criteria and then begin narrowing down your options till you find the most suitable one.

Here are some key factors which you must consider while choosing the right wireless protocol for your IoT project. 

Data volume to be transmitted

If your project requires huge chunks of data to be transmitted, like high-resolution pictures or videos, or large sensor data files, you must choose a protocol that can transmit this huge data in a short interval. WLAN and Bluetooth protocols can be a great choice in such a situation, but they will consume a large amount of energy in the process.

However, the majority of IoT projects with smart sensor modules need the wireless transmission of small amounts of data in short bursts. In such scenarios, you can easily switch to low-powered solutions like ZigBee or EnOcean, which are designed specifically for ultra-low-power devices.

The number of devices transmitting data at the same time

For a wireless protocol, the available frequency band is shared between the network devices. If you have many devices using the same frequency band at a given location, the radio signals can get distorted due to interference, resulting in data transmission delays and data losses.

Furthermore, there are some frequency bands that are used by many protocols. Hence, these protocols are more susceptible to interference. For example, the 2.4 GHz band, having been license-free all across the world, is used for wireless networking of various IT equipment like printers, computers, and various other IT equipment. WLAN, Bluetooth, and some ZigBee devices also use this band.

Certain frequency bands are more widely used than others, which makes systems using certain protocols more prone to interference. The 2.4 GHz band is a good example — it’s used for the wireless networking of computers, printers, and other IT equipment and is license-free all over the world, making it a popular choice. Bluetooth and WLAN both use this band, as do the majority of ZigBee devices.

There are some other protocols that fall into the sub-1GHz band category, which means that the radio waves used in these protocols for data transmission have frequencies less than 1 GHz. You are much more likely to have interference-free transmission using these bands as they are much less populated.

Sensors and Actuators Power Source

If the sensors deployed in your IoT project are battery-powered, you need to know the replacement period for the batteries. Furthermore, you will also need to dispose of them properly and ensure that you always have replacements ready to roll. Choosing a battery-less and wireless solution can unencumber you from all these hassles. Those seeking a low-energy, the low-maintenance solution should consider a battery-less, wireless solution that is photovoltaic-powered, or in simple terms, uses solar energy as a power source.

Compatibility with other technologies and platforms

Since there is a plethora of different manufacturers and automation systems, it is essential that whichever protocol you choose for your IoT project be compatible with other platforms and wireless technologies.

At Dusuniot, we design gateways and IoT solutions that are compatible with LTE-M, Wi-Fi, BLE, Z-WAVE, Sub-G, LoRa, and many other protocols. Our gateways also support programming, secondary development, and other SDKs, allowing users to customize their gateway applications easily.

References:

https://www.dusuniot.com/blog/smart-home-automation-systems/

https://csa-iot.org/

https://www.wi-fi.org

https://www.dusuniot.com/blog/what-is-an-iot-gateway/

https://www.dusuniot.com/blog/lorawan-gateways-how-far-can-they-transmit/

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