How to Choose the Right Connection Capabilities for IoT Devices

With the Internet of Things (IoT) rising in popular consciousness, it should come as no surprise that more manufacturers than ever are jumping on the connectivity bandwagon. It’s important for these manufacturers to choose the right network connection options since, without a reliable network connection, IoT devices can’t operate as intended. Read on to find out what manufacturers need to know about IoT connectivity before choosing a service provider.

WiFi vs. Cellular

The first choice IoT device manufacturers must make is whether to connect their devices via WiFi or cellular signals. In some cases, the right choice is obvious. Any device that can be used on-the-go will need to be connected to a cellular network to transmit data without forcing users to stop to connect to WiFi every time they want to use the device.

IoT devices designed for home use can run on either WiFi or cellular signals. It may be tempting to assume WiFi is the best option, but the cellular connectivity options available from Particle may still be a better fit. Here’s why:

  • Today’s cellular network technologies already offer speeds on par with WiFi
  • The ongoing rollout of 5G networks will increase cellular data transmission speeds even more
  • Devices connected to WiFi will stop being able to transmit data when the power to the router goes out
  • Problems with WiFi connectivity are far more common than problems with cellular connectivity
  • Coverage losses pose serious design complications for IoT device manufacturers
  • Cellular technologies provide better connectivity in rural environments and underground spaces

The Security Question

There are few regulations currently in place governing IoT device manufacturers’ responsibilities when it comes to cybersecurity. Given that there are already billions of connected devices in use across the world, business owners shouldn’t expect governments to continue taking a hands-off approach forever. Even without legal liabilities to worry about, device manufacturers need to produce secure products if they want to keep their customer bases happy. This begs the question: what type of network is most secure?

Cellular networks offer a few benefits when it comes to IoT device security. First, they offer automatic encryption, while WiFi data must be encrypted by users. This introduces the potential for human error, and that’s just not necessary when cellular networks provide a perfectly acceptable, even superior, and alternative.

WiFi network updates related to cybersecurity must be performed by individual network owners. This introduces yet another human element into the equation and, even worse, it assumes that every individual network operator is both appropriately concerned about security and well-versed in how to perform system updates. Cellular network updates related to cybersecurity are made by the networks, themselves, which hire dedicated staff to ensure that the updates are made as soon as a potential vulnerability gets discovered.

Bandwidth Battles

Historically, WiFi had the advantage when it came to bandwidth, offering speeds of up to 1.3 Gbps. Today’s 4G LTE standard networks offer 1Gbps speeds already, though, and newly emerging 5G networks should perform even better. That means there’s no clear winner in the bandwidth battle, at least as things stand right now.

Coverage Issues

There’s no question that cellular networks win out when it comes to the question of coverage. While WiFi-connected IoT devices may operate smoothly in a home or office provided the power supply is stable and the network administrator makes the frequent updates required to keep everything running smoothly, cellular connections are available almost everywhere.

Low-power wide-area (LPWA) cellular technologies designed for IoT devices provide even better coverage than traditional networks, meaning there are even fewer coverage issues associated with IoT cellular networks than cell phones. Given how many consumers across the world already use cell phones, portable IoT devices, or both, this trend is unlikely to do anything but accelerate in the future.

When Is WiFi Better?

IoT device manufacturers who plan to release products used only in the house or office may be better off choosing WiFi connections. Manufacturers of smart home or smart office devices are really the only ones who should consider this option since the devices won’t be able to transmit data if they are removed from the WiFi network’s range. Some designers opt for dual connectivity, which allows portable IoT devices to connect to both WiFi, when available, and cellular networks. Some specialized IoT network providers offer both connection options to facilitate dual connectivity.

What about Bluetooth and Near-Field Communication?

Both Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and Near-Field Communication (NFC) technologies can be used to great effect with certain types of IoT devices. They both require the connected devices to be in close proximity, though. This is ideal for things like payment processing since it helps to cut back on the potential for network-based cyber-attacks, but it isn’t an optimal solution for most IoT device manufacturers.

Since BLE and NFC are both extremely useful in limited circumstances, they’re still worth discussing. The primary difference between the two is that NFC requires very short-range transmission in comparison to even BLE. Most devices require no more than a few centimeters of space between them to form a secure NFC connection.

BLE connections have a wider range of applications than NFC devices. BLE beacons have a 50-meter range and are able to transmit other content, such as location data. They also work with any Bluetooth-compatible phone, and more phones are outfitted with BLE compatibility than NFC support. Device manufacturers who operate in the specialized fields of payment processing or consumer sales should consult an expert for help with deciding which of these networks will be the best fit.

The Bottom Line

There’s no one right answer to the question of which network connectivity plan works the best with IoT devices. Every device manufacturer has different goals. As a rule, WiFi is the best option only for smart home or office devices. Cellular networks are best for portable devices and can be used for home- or office-based IoT products, as well. BLE may be an appropriate solution for retail stores, restaurants, and other brick-and-mortar, consumer-facing establishments. NFC is best used to support payment solutions.