As the Internet of Things (IoT) develops and evolves across the globe, the competition between communication protocols grows increasingly heated. Instead of signs of consolidation towards one solution; companies, organizations and interest groups are inventing and refining more and more ways to tackle the challenge.
This is no coincidence. The IoT is a huge domain comprised of many different use cases. Each use case requires a different solution due to the inherent trade-offs between communication distance, transfer speed, bandwidth, power consumption and more. In different IoT scenarios, these attributes are prioritized differently, and are best handled by a solution with the fitting trade-off.
For example, a sensor used to track assets during transport requires very little bandwidth, but must relay information over large distances. Such sensor would also need ultra-low power consumption, as it may be deployed for years on batteries without charging. On the other hand, a smart home application requires a short range, and in some cases, broad bandwidth for streaming, and is less concerned with power consumption than a battery operated device (although minimizing energy usage is always desirable, of course). These two use cases can each be treated by a wide variety of communication protocols. The asset tracker, defined as a Wide Area Network (WAN) use case, would probably benefit from one the various machine to machine (M2M) protocols, like Cat-0, Cat-1, LTE-M, NB-IoT or EC-GSM. The smart home system, is more a Home Area Network (HAN) use case which could use Wi-Fi, ZigBee, Bluetooth or Thread.
In a more complex use case like a smart city, the options are staggering. The broad term “smart city” refers to many different elements at many different scales. Some of the major concerns of the smart city are smart grid monitoring, traffic regulation, and improved services to residents and visitors. During the last year, experimental infrastructures have been sprouting up in cities across the globe, showing different ways of approaching these issues.
Smart City Infrastructure: LoRa vs. Sigfox vs. NB-IoT vs. Wi-Fi
Low-Power Wide-Area Networks (LPWANs) are designed to enable communication of things at a long range and at a low bit rate. Recently, a LPWAN based on LoRa was launched in Sydney. The low-power, long-range network can accommodate up to 1,000 connected devices, and reaches up to 5km radius. IoT developers can connect to the network for free, to prototype, test, and develop solutions. Elsewhere in Australia, trials of a LPWAN using NB-IoT are taking place in Melbourne. This technology is reportedly able to reach distances of up to 30km, and offer scalability for up to 100,000 devices per cell. These LPWANs are still in experimental stages, as they require the development of compatible devices and applications to become functioning smart cities.
On the other side of the globe, at the end of last year, New York City saw the deployment of LinkNYC, a network of Wi-Fi terminals built on the foundation of the existing public payphone infrastructure. The terminals, or Links as they’re called, offer free public Wi-Fi, phone calls, device charging and a tablet for access to city services, maps and directions. The relatively short range of Wi-Fi requires many stations with short distances between them in order to get good coverage. That’s why over 7,500 payphones across the city were refitted to keep up with the new communication demands. One of the big advantages of this infrastructure is that most consumer devices support Wi-Fi, so the network is immediately accessible to the millions of potential users in the city. A bonus advantage is that the battered, old phone booths all over the city get nice, sleek overhaul.
And in France, French IoT network provider Sigfox announced a partnership with Taiwanese manufacturer Advantech earlier in August. The deal, revealed by Sigfox CEO and founder Ludovic Le Moan at the Taipei International Convention Center, included the launch of Sigfox’s IoT network in Taiwan and an agreement for Advantech to build all new base stations. The entry into Taiwan comes one month after Sigfox announced plans to move into Singapore, showing the company’s pivot to the Asian markets after establishing itself in Europe and the U.S. earlier in the year.
A multi-mode solution to combat the uncertainty
Within the next few years tens of billions of devices will be connected to the IoT. On the other hand, nobody knows exactly how they’ll be connected. The few examples discussed here illustrate the wide variety of approaches to the connectivity of things (while many more communication protocols may accommodate and support these use cases). The IoT is still in its infancy. The way we interact with our devices, homes and cities is constantly changing, as well. Technological advances like artificial intelligence based conversational assistants or augmented and virtual reality, as demonstrated by the Pokémon Go craze are fueling these changes. These advances are also informing the way the infrastructure of smart cities develops.
Still, with all this uncertainty, SoC designers and engineers need to act today to see their products among the future billions of connected devices. The only viable solution is to have a powerful yet efficient architecture framework that can support the multitude of standards and protocols. It must also be flexible and easily adjusted and upgraded in-field over the air to stay up to date with the evolving standards. Just as importantly, the framework must be small and efficient, in order be cost-effective. Using the same hardware to perform as many different tasks as possible, while keeping power consumption to a minimum will be a huge benefit. If these criterias are met, the solution is sure to be future-proof, and to fit in to the smart, connected world, no matter which protocols succeed in the long term and which ones fade away.
Edited by Ken Briodagh