How to choose the “good enough” solution for your IoT project
At Nodle our mission is to build the world’s biggest wireless network for connecting the Internet of Things (IoT).
Most of our team comes from a background in mobile and wireless: we speak in acronyms and think radios come in flavors. So we know that IoT is very exciting, but it has also proven much harder to realize than everyone expected.
IoT is not one thing. It is thousands of use cases spread across dozens of industries. So one of the biggest problem is finding a simple and good enough way to connect all those devices. This really requires a communications network, and probably more than one.
When choosing a network there are many factors to consider, each network comes with its own set of advantages and disadvantages.
As companies choose there networks they have three things to consider
1) The cost of a module needed to connect to that network (Capex)
2) The monthly cost of using the network (Opex)
3) The capabilities of that network (Features)
4) The amount of work required to get up and running on the network (Management headaches)
The first two problems are fairly straightforward. Many companies sell chips and modules for connectivity. And every telecom operator in the world can quote you a cost for their IoT service. Unfortunately, in many cases those costs are prohibitive. If you want to track a $50 wooden crate it makes no sense install a $40 cellular module. And while the telecom operators have built impressive always-on, highly reliable networks, many use cases do not need those levels of service. The features of each type of network also vary considerably with differing degrees of coverage, roaming, data rates and location accuracy.
And then there is that final factor — getting everything working.
For instance, a company may have a robust Wi-Fi network in their warehouse, but what happens when a shipment leaves that network? Another company may attach a cellular module to their hardware, but if they ship it to a customer in another country who is going to install a local SIM card and re-authenticate on that other telecom operator? Another major problem is that IoT networks have to work with existing hardware, it takes too long to design hardware for the latest radio technology.
The ideal would be a network that works out-of-the-box with existing hardware, and one that works anywhere in the world, and also it would nice if it is priced reasonably.
The good news is that Nodle has built exactly that. We started with Bluetooth. Our system can accommodate other radios, but Bluetooth has a lot going for it. For starters, it is the most widely deployed radio technology on the planet.
Estimates vary, but there are probably 100 billion Bluetooth-enabled devices already in the market. We find that everyone building electronics today is adding Bluetooth, and the industry is going to ship 4 billion Bluetooth radios this year.
If you have hardware with Bluetooth in it, it can communicate with the Nodle Network today. And it takes only a few minutes to set up, no more six month provisioning cycles. Our service has nationwide coverage in the US and Canada, and has a presence in over 80 countries.
However, we recognize that every customer has different requirements and that IoT will rely on a variety of networks. We view these networks are complementary, IoT will need multiple networks working together to achieve its full potential.
Loosely speaking there are four other types of network we are working with in the market:
Everyone’s favorite home and office networking technology. Wi-Fi has changed the way we think about data connections, freeing us all from the tyranny of cables. However, Wi-Fi today does not roam well. Every network requires authentication which tends to tie use cases to a pre-determined set of locations.
Cellular: 2G through 5G
Cellular technology remains the preeminent mobile connectivity solution. It is always-on, works in most of the planet and has considerable bandwidth. The drawbacks of cellular is that many telecom operators are still finding their way when it comes to IoT. Their billing and back-end systems were not designed for the scale of connectivity envisioned in IoT. And while prices have come down considerably, monthly fees and module costs are still higher than for many alternatives.
Low-power, long-range systems
In recent years, several companies have championed the launch of networks designed for IoT. Technologies like LoRA and SigFox are designed to provide low power connectivity connections. However, these companies struggle to build ecosystems. Users need to have new radios installed in their hardware and someone has to build the antennas and base stations needed to reach all those devices. That real estate side of the network takes a lot of time. As a result, we tend to see these systems deployed in distinct “Islands”, with service working in a subset of cities or around specific private deployments.
Other Emerging Standards
There are many other technologies out there. For instance, Zigbee has become popular in many home automation (e.g. light switches) and industrial settings (e.g. factory floor sensors). Another company, privately-held Helium, also recently unveiled its own Zigbee variant with yet another radio standard. Helium seeks to have others build its network by buying their ‘Hot Spots’, and rewarding those people with their cryptocurrency. These standards are limited, in part, by the range and data rates of the standard. But they also face the far larger problem of building an ecosystem of connected devices. For instance, while Helium may be able to build out its infrastructure with its current incentive mechanism, there are very few devices which have Helium radios built into them. Building out these ecosystems will take many years.
We encourage anyone looking to build out their IoT strategies to evaluate all the technologies. Some will find an obvious fit, others will need to balance trade-offs. In our experience, many IoT deployments end up using multiple technologies — often one primary and one back-up. The exact mix for your deployment will vary, but it is now possible to connect any electronic hardware anywhere in the world.