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Understanding different IoT wireless networks options

Posted 29 Mar 2019

The internet of things (IoT) opens up hundreds of new ways to use connected technologies to improve systems and processes. From simple temperature monitoring to complex training simulations, a wireless technology that is capable of delivering an overall benefit to an owner is critical: choosing the right sort of network to support an IoT solution is a key component of its success or failure. It may also be that a solution needs more than one type of wireless network.

Deploying the wrong kind of network can lead to unnecessary infrastructure spend, inefficient data collection or even loss of data, as some networks do not work well in all environments. Understanding what type(s) of network to deploy and how to deploy them are crucial parameters to be understood before any major technological solution is deployed. Not only can the type of network vary deployment parameters but also vary a wide range of other aspects of the project and play a crucial role in its success.

The choice of wireless network for a project will typically depend on the amount of data that needs to be sent, the time between messages and the size of the deployment. Digital Catapult have experience in deploying networks for both proof of concept work and at scale in a wide variety of indoor and outdoor environments. Such networks solve a variety of problems for manufacturers and vary in number of connected devices, reporting times, data packet size and human interactions. Such wireless technologies can be (broadly) classified into three groups:

The three types of network technologies

Short range wireless: These technologies typically send a large amount of data over a short distance (less than 100 meters). Such technologies include Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, which are well established and feature in everyday devices such as mobile phones, televisions and headphones. Short range wireless technologies are especially useful for monitoring indoor positioning of people and assets, providing a low infrastructure investment which means that accurate location information can be generated.

Low power wide area networks (LPWAN): This is a relatively new class of communication technologies that suits long range, low data volume use cases.The largest advantages of these technologies is their long range (up to 10 km) and their low power needs (battery lives of many years). This technology is largely designed for ‘fit and forget’ installations that monitor actions over a long period or provide alerts when human interaction is required, but are otherwise left to operate in the background with minimal supervision. This technology does have some drawbacks, the low throughput of the technology means that applications requiring a high data rate (voice, video, etc) cannot be supported, and the high latency (in some cases up to 10 seconds) means that LPWAN cannot support mission critical systems. There are however many applications that are extremely well suited to LPWAN network technologies, primarily in asset and condition monitoring.

Cellular networks: These networks enable large amounts of data to be transmitted over a long distance. A wide range of applications can be addressed with cellular technology, however these applications typically have high power requirements. Network infrastructure is managed by a mobile network operator which can mean additional contracts must be put in place to secure deployments. The advent of 5G promises to transform the way cellular networks are used by consumers and businesses: you can find out more about 5G here [link to our 5G site].

There is also a consideration between using licensed and license exempt spectrum. In order for multiple technologies to transmit over the airwaves simultaneously, wireless spectrum is segmented into frequency bands. Licensed bands exist where organisations pay a fee for exclusive rights to transmit on assigned channels within the band in a geographic area. For example, Telefonica has exclusive rights to 40 MHz of 2.3 GHz spectrum in the UK, which enables it to provide some of its 4G services.

Licensing is a way of ensuring that wireless operators do not interfere with each other’s transmissions. In the licensed spectrum, interference usually only occurs at the outer edge of the license holders’ coverage area.

While the licensing process works well for some use cases (such as cellular communications), spectrum is expensive (~£15m/MHz) and impractical for smaller wireless networks, such as connecting wireless keyboards and other accessories. For these use cases, the unlicensed spectrum is utilised.

License exempt spectrum technologies (such as Bluetooth, LoRaWAN and Wi-Fi) do not require any permissions, provided that the products and users comply with the rules associated with the license exempt band (e.g. maximum transmission power). These bands are unlicensed, but are regulated. License exempt spectrum technologies are much more susceptible to interference, and for this reason adjustments are sometimes required to avoid interference and radio environments are likely to change over time.

To view the table explaining the pros, cons and use cases of a variety of IoT wireless networks, click here.

Multi network systems

Where different components of a solution have different requirements one option is to select more than one network type. Multi network systems – which typically use two different network types to cater for different applications within a system – have been used in a number of proof of concept projects that the Digital Catapult has undertaken.

One example of this is Digital Catapult’s deployment of a multi network solution as part of a training simulation in partnership with a large aircraft manufacturer, the German institute for artificial intelligence (DFKI) and Neocosmo GmbH, and EIT Digital. This solution used LoRaWAN, a private LPWAN solution that feeds a binary rules based system, as well as a real time positioning system using short range wireless technology. By combining two different networking technologies the different applications could be carried out simultaneously within the same programme, adding value from different data types.

Considerations when developing multi network solutions

A typical digital solution will require different types of wireless communication. In addition to networks for machine to machine communication, it may be that wireless technology is also required to enable user interfaces such as tablets, phones or immersive headsets.

While the use of multiple wireless networks can lead to interference, careful spectrum planning and a detailed understanding of a deployment environment means that the right communication options can be chosen to enable a successful deployment of IoT technology and real value to an industry.

Digital Catapult’s Future Networks Lab has been specifically designed to enable organisations to experience and understand a wide range of wireless IoT technologies, including LoRaWAN, Sigfox, NB-IoT, Nwave, and 5G. We also offer bespoke workshops if you would like us to help your team get to grips with these technology options. Further details for visiting and booking the Future Networks Lab can be found at