For IoT product developers connecting their devices to the internet, one key question is: “How do I get the data off my device?”
Making a device IoT is as simple as connecting it to the Internet, but with dozens of competing communication protocols, choosing a method of making that connection can be overwhelming.
Which should you choose for you IoT product? The answer: it depends. Each communication protocol has its pluses and minuses. To help guide your decision, this article provides an analysis of seven dominant protocol options across five product dimensions, as well as examples of which protocols are used with which types of products. Specifically, we’ve compared and contrasted Bluetooth Low Energy, Wi-Fi, cellular, Zigbee, LoRa, and Sigfox on data rate, range, power usage, cost, and reliability.
While that list may feel overwhelming, choosing the right communication protocol is an important decision! By the end of this article, we promise you’ll be better equipped.
Bluetooth Low Energy
What is it?
Many consumers are already familiar with Bluetooth as a wireless way of connecting devices to their smartphones. Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) is a modified version of Bluetooth that decreases power usage and data rates by allowing incoming connections to control when the device uses power.
BLE was the main feature of Bluetooth’s December 2009 v4.0 update. As the name suggests, BLE prioritized power efficiency, often decreasing power usage by 95-99%. Additionally, BLE is popular and accessible: its governing body estimates that over 90% of smartphones in 2018 support BLE connections.
Types of Products that use Bluetooth Low Energy as their IoT Communication Protocol
IoT product developers choose BLE for its energy efficiency, reliability, and small chip size. It’s also the easiest way to communicate with modern mobile platforms. In fact, it’s the only legal option for products that connect to Apple’s mobile operating system iOS.
For IoT devices, the BLE communication protocol is common in:
- Consumer products
- Smartphone-connected devices
Wi-Fi uses wireless transmitters and radio signals to transmit broadband Internet to devices. Most consumers are familiar with Wi-Fi as the way their devices connect wirelessly to the Internet.
Wi-Fi (based on IEEE 802.11) was originally released in 1997 as a protocol to replace cabled Ethernet. Recently, Wi-Fi has seen two developments relevant to IoT devices:
HaLow has been called “promising but complicated,” with all its commercial implementations currently in the works. High Efficiency Wireless has been called “the next big thing in Wi-Fi,” and is due for public release in 2019.
Types of Products that use Wi-Fi as their IoT Communication Protocol
IoT product developers choose Wi-Fi for its high bandwidth, moderate cost, and ease of device interoperability. For locations where Wi-Fi is already installed, connecting a new IoT device is relatively simple, just like connecting a mobile device to a coffee shop’s public Wi-Fi. Compared to other IoT protocols, however, Wi-Fi has both more security vulnerabilities and can be less reliable. It’s therefore less attractive as a protocol for IoT devices that require robust, secure connections. Additionally, devices need proper permissions and credentials to use a Wi-Fi network, so it’s not sufficient merely to have a Wi-Fi network installed. Without the right permissions, there’s no connectivity.
For IoT devices, the Wi-Fi communication protocol is common in:
Cellular (4G, 4G LTE)
Cellular systems connect to the Internet by sending wireless signals to nearby cell towers.
The first generation of cellular (1G) was introduced in the early 1980s, with a new generation approximately every decade since. With each new generation comes new frequency bands and higher data rates at lower cost.
The next generation, 5G, boasts speeds up to 20Gbps (compared to 4G’s 1Gbps). 5G’s first specifications were confirmed in 2017, and it’s expected to be fully deployed in 2019 or 2020. In addition to 5G, cell carriers are currently deploying cellular technologies specifically aimed at IoT devices, like NB-IoT and LTE-M. All of these new cellular technologies should lower cost and power requirements while increasing bandwidth, enabling a whole host of new IoT use cases.
Types of Products that use Cellular as their IoT Communication Protocol
IoT product developers choose cellular for its reliability, range, and security. Cellular devices must, however, be within range of cell towers and use significant amounts of power. This typically restricts cellular IoT devices to populated areas and applications with accessible end nodes (so the battery can be recharged or replaced).
Additionally, cellular can be expensive. Getting a device certified can cost upwards of $15,000 and require relationships with cell carriers that incur an additional monthly fee.
For IoT devices, the cellular communication protocol is common in:
- Asset tracking
- Transportation fleets
|High (up to 1Gbps in theory, generally up to 12Mbps in practice for IoT devices, depending on coverage)
||Large (on the order of miles)
Zigbee uses mesh networking–connections to other connected devices–to connect its devices to each other and the Internet.
Zigbee was first released in 2003 as a low-power, low-cost, low-bandwidth protocol. Since then, it’s grown to over 300 million devices, most commonly in industrial settings.
Types of Products that use Zigbee as their IoT Communication Protocol
IoT product developers choose Zigbee for products that require small amounts of data exchanged over a contained area. Since Zigbee devices benefit from other Zigbee devices being nearby, it’s also a popular choice for product developers who want many small devices talking to each other.
For IoT devices, the Zigbee communication protocol is common in:
- Indoor asset tracking
- Context monitoring (such as temperature and humidity)
- Home automation
- Industrial device sensing or controlling
LoRa (named for the phrase Long Range) provides a long-range, low power wireless platform suited for large networks and long distances.
LoRa is a patented technology owned by the company Semtech. First developed in 2008, LoRa now boasts over 50+ million devices connected in 95 countries. Since it’s a proprietary technology, LoRa does, however, have less documentation and public history than other IoT communication protocols.
Types of Products that use this LoRa as their IoT Communication Protocol
IoT product developers choose LoRa for its low power consumption and large networks (both physically and in number of devices). Commercial uses of LoRa, however, may have to pay for their required bandwidth, security, and number of devices.
For IoT devices, the LoRa communication protocol is common in:
- Smart city
- Energy management
- Supply chain management
Sigfox specializes in the Internet of “simple” things—machine-to-machine communication of very small amounts of data.
Sigfox is a French company founded in 2009. While their performance in the U.S. is less robust than in Europe, Sigfox has still deployed tens of thousands of connected objects in 60 countries, with the goal of a global network connecting billions of devices to the Internet while consuming as little energy as possible.
Types of Products that use Sigfox as their IoT Communication Protocol
IoT product developers choose Sigfox for products that require reliable transfer of extremely small amounts of data across great distances.
For IoT devices, the Sigfox communication protocol is common in:
- Smart meters
- Environmental sensors
NFC can make a device IoT simply by slapping a small sticker on it. Most NFC devices are “passive,” meaning they exclusively store data. These passive devices must await “active” NFC devices to come near them, power them, and receive and transmit the relevant data.
NFC technology has its roots in RFID tags, first developed in 1983, which consumers may know from its applications in retail or race tracking. Over time, NFC technology has become smaller and cheaper, and is now most popular as the technology that powers payments like Apple Pay and Samsung Pay.
Types of Products that use NFC as their IoT Communication Protocol
IoT product developers choose NFC for low-cost transfer of small amounts of data over very short distances. Because the passive devices are extremely inexpensive and can last indefinitely, it’s the preferred choice for tagging items that only need to connect when near another connected device.
For IoT devices, the NFC communication protocol is common in:
- Local asset tracking
- Contactless payment transactions
- Adding small amounts of digital information to non-electronic devices
When it comes to choosing an IoT communication protocol, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. However, by answering a few simple questions, IoT device developers can find the best solution for their individual needs.