Choosing the right wireless technology for your product
By Luke Vos, Director at LUMA-iD
January 27th, 2020
Installing wireless technology into your product can be tricky given the ever-growing choices available on the market and new innovations being launched each year. Design, cost, functionality and meeting the needs of the user remain at the forefront of any its implementation, but knowing where to start and which one to use can prove to be tricky. Below is a list of the current wireless options available, offering more detail on each technology so you can determine which one is best suited to your product. Bluetooth Classic Even though Bluetooth is one of the oldest forms of modern-day wireless technologies around, it is still the standout in the peer-to-peer field. It’s a global 2.4 GHz personal area network used for short range communication – between a smartphone and a wireless headset, for instance. This means it relies on much less power than Wi-Fi and other mobile technologies. Wi-Fi Direct Wi-Fi Direct works in a similar way to Bluetooth, while holding a distinct advantage over traditional Wi-Fi technology. Although it works using the same frequency and operates at a similar speed and bandwidth, no single access point is required (which is how traditional Wi-Fi works), creating a direct connection in much the same way as Bluetooth. This allows both devices to transfer data immediately between each other at a faster rate compared to traditional Wi-Fi. That is also true of Bluetooth, with Wi-Fi Direct being over one hundred times faster. There is a pay-off involved, however, as the technology consumes more power which creates other issues to solve in the product design.
Near-Field Communication Rather than rely on radio waves – which all other wireless technologies use – Near Field Communication (NFC) transmits data via electromagnetic fields that are linked between two coils. This means it is best used in fields of very close communication, usually as short as one or two inches, which makes them ideal for devices such as contactless payment points. By forming a transformer with an air core in such close proximity, along with the already encrypted payment data involved with the transaction, anyone attempting to steal the information will struggle to find a way to tap into the data. One of the main benefits of using this technology is its cost effectiveness. This is because it relies on the use of NFC tags, which in this instance means no power source is required. The electromagnetic field of an NFC reader device provides the power, with all the necessary data transfer taking place between two coupled coils. The use of passive tags doesn’t require complicated technology and along with their compact size and ability to last without any additional maintenance they are ideal for close range communication. Alternatively, if you want to include batteries in the product, you can opt to use active tags instead. Bluetooth Low-Energy (BLE) Bluetooth Low-Energy (BLE) is different from Bluetooth Classic in that it can be used on a totally different range of applications. One of the most common is the infrequent transmittance of sensor data. For example, this would be ideal for GPS devices that intermittently record and transmit location information every few minutes. You will also find that BLE is utilised by smartphones and tablets, which is good news for integrating products with app developments. Speed transfers usually extend up to 1Mbps (compared to 2-3Mbps for Bluetooth Classic). The technology consumes an extremely low amount of energy and typically relies on a small coin cell battery for power. For devices that are only sending data on an infrequent basis this means a coin cell battery can last for well over a year.
Zigbee You’ll find that Zigbee operates in much the same way as Bluetooth LE, as it is a 2.4GHz mesh local area network (LAN) protocol that was originally designed for building automation and control. This is why it is often implemented in wireless thermostats and lighting systems. While it operates over a similar range to Bluetooth LE, it can include almost twice as many devices in its network (up to 65,000), while also using a similar amount of power. This is why Zigbee is used in Amazon’s Echo Plus which allows users to control compatible smart devices in their homes. In fact, a vast majority of smart home technologies utilise Zigbee and is rapidly becoming the standard wireless protocol for smart home devices to speak to each other – regardless of who they are manufactured by. Z-Wave Z-Wave is a sub-GHz mesh network protocol that competes in the same home automation space as Zigbee and Bluetooth LE. The major difference is that is uses a sub-1GHz band rather than the 2.4GHz band used by its competitors. However, the exact frequency varies depending on the region, which will require you to make alterations when selling a product internationally. For example, Europe uses 868 MHz, the US 908 MHz, while other regions range anywhere between 865 MHz and 921 MHz. Using a lower frequency means the product is less likely to experience interference compared to the likes of Zigbee and Bluetooth LE. Both Bluetooth Classic and Wi-Fi operate on the same frequency as these two technologies, which means there is increased potential for products to crossover and confuse each other. While fewer wireless technologies rely on the frequency bands employed by Z-Wave and it is able to support over 200 devices at any one time, one of the major disadvantages is a lower rate of data transmission, which is estimated as being around ten times slower than Bluetooth LE. 6LoWPAN Similar to other open networks like Zigbee, 6LowAN is used heavily in the home and building automation sectors. It uses lightweight IP-based communication to transmit data over lower rate networks. The slightly clunky name is derived from mixing together Internet Protocol (IP) version 6 with Low-power Wireless Personal Area Network (abbreviated). It allows for devices with limited processing ability to transfer their data wireless via an internet protocol. It was created as engineers believed that small devices were not being included in discussions about the Internet of Things (IoT). Where needed 6LoWPAN can be used to link with Wi-Fi using a bridge device to connect the two. GSM/GPRS While we are on the verge of a mass 5G roll out, GSM (2G) is still being used for products that do not need large amounts of data transfer. The technology is easily accessible and cost effective, and is used in things like cash machines and older alarm systems. Mobile carriers are looking to make 4G the minimum standard across the board, and as mentioned above, 5G will become more common place over the next few years. This means GSM will be phased out to account for the bandwidth needed for these technologies. LTE Ideal for use in products that require very fast data speeds, LTE is a 4G mobile technology has found popularity of use in IoT devices. It offers faster data speeds than GSM and works best in products that require rapid mobile data communication. Products that do not require fast data speeds would probably be best suited to using GSM, as it will be the more cost effective option.
LoRa / LoRaWAN A long range technology that can cover a range of over 6 miles, LoRa (which stands for Long Range) does not consume much power in the process. One thing to be mindful of is it requires different frequency band settings depending on the region you are selling your product in. Europe uses 868MHz, the US 915MHz, while 169MHz and 433MHz may be required in other regions. LoRa is the underlying tech and is ideal for peer-to-peer communications, while LoRaWAN is the outward facing layer networking protocol. This makes LoRa ideal for low power, long distance, peer-to-peer connections, and is usually cheaper compared to LoRaWAN modules. In order to connect to an established LoRaWAN network a LoRaWAN module will be required. However, they are not available in the US and can only be purchased in some parts of Europe, which puts limitations on their effectiveness when installed inside a new product. NB-IOT This is a more complex mobile technology that uses up more power and is expensive to use. But the payoff could be worth it as it offers a direct access to the internet and a high quality connection to mobile networks. Up until 2019 it was only available for use in Europe but now has finally arrived in the US. Although it can only transmit small amounts of data, one of the technology’s main advantages is its ability to reach devices in dense or underground environments, without using much power. LTE-M LTE-M may be the best choice for your product if either LoRa or NB-IOT are not able to support the long-distance mobile access and high data rates you need to achieve. LTE-M is short for LTE (Long Term Evolution) Cat-M1 and is designed for use with IoT devices that require a direct connection to a 4G mobile network. As part of the LTE group of mobile technologies, LTE-M works for low data rate devices powered by small batteries. It is cheaper than LTE due to the limited bandwidth produced by simpler chips, and maximises power consumption so smaller batteries are not drained too quickly. Conclusion When it comes to making a decision on the wireless technology you want to use, focus on the data transmission speed, cost and power consumption as the main three criteria. It can prove difficult to find the ‘perfect’ solution, so you may have to strike a balance between these three that optimises your product. Always put the design criteria first and narrow down your choices from that start point.