How to Really Plug Into the IoT

By GlenNiece Kutsch

The Internet of Things comprises countless wireless devices, but in many use cases, wireless connectivity is not the best approach for connecting nodes to an IoT network.

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Many people assume that using a radio protocol, such as Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, is the best choice for networking Internet of Things devices—appliances, cars, wearables and other systems—in our personal and business lives. And clearly, there will be a lot of endpoints to connect in the IoT. Industry research firm IDC predicts the IoT will support more than 29.5 billion connections by 2020. But not all of these devices are best suited for wireless connection.

When most people think of the wired network in context of the IoT, it is usually employed for backhaul communications. But there are many more applications for which wired networks should be the preferred connection type for a number of key reasons. Bandwidth tops the list of reasons for utilizing existing wired networks for IoT applications, but there are many more.

Bandwidth: The higher an application’s bandwidth requirement, the more difficult it will be to connect that system wirelessly. Some applications, such as high-resolution scoreboards, may seem like good candidates for wireless connection in order to take advantage of features like live score updates, crowd prompts and interactive text messaging with fans. However, other features, such as instant replay or telestrating of plays, may require so much spectrum that wireless connection becomes prohibitive. Alternatively, if an application is static, there is no reason to use a wireless connection like Wi-Fi or 4G/5G LTE when a network cable can effectively do the job. Surveillance cameras, automated door locks and alarm systems are also good candidates for a wired connection.

Reliability: Reliable data connections are key to many IoT applications. Changes to wireless base stations or access points, increased competition for a signal and other challenges can impact wireless signal reliability in ways to which wireline networks are not subject. In addition, wireless devices are reliant upon batteries, which have limited lifecycles. It can be both time-consuming and costly to access the equipment in order to replace, recycle or dispose of batteries—not to mention the expense related to downtime if a battery fails before reaching its expected lifespan.

Power: Transceivers for IoT applications are often placed in areas that previously were never considered for equipment—in a ceiling, for instance. While there are a lot of wires around that ceiling, there likely are not any power outlets there. Power-over-Ethernet (PoE) can bring power to these systems over a wide range of cabling types, whereas a wireless connection requires local AC power.

Noisy Environments: Transceivers placed deep inside a building—in the basement, for example—will have a difficult time connecting to the wireless network unless a small cell or distributed antenna system is installed to extend coverage to that part of the building. Similarly, noise can present challenges for wireless standards that leverage unlicensed spectrum, such as Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) or LoRa, for which nearby wireless signals can overwhelm the wireless host.

Security: Wireless networks radiate RF signals that can be snooped by hackers who can then extract the data. Although copper network cables can emit small amounts of RF as well, it typically requires more equipment, expertise and physical access to hack into a wired system. And if an IoT application is particularly security-sensitive, then a fiber-optic wired connection is the best alternative.

Cost: Wired networks are typically mature, with many existing assets already capitalized, making it faster and less expensive to choose a wired connection over wireless. There is also now the capability to leverage non-traditional network cabling, such as RG-style coax or two-wire phone line, for IoT applications. In many buildings, these cabling types are ubiquitous, and with the ability to support Ethernet and PoE+ standards, companies can reduce the cost of new IoT applications by 40 percent when they leverage this existing cable plant.

Certainly, the Internet of Things will always rely on some wireless connectivity, particularly in locations that are physically unreachable with network cabling. But for ease of installation and maintenance, as well as cost savings from leveraging existing cabling infrastructure, using a wired connection can often be preferable. For some IoT applications, wireless is a fine solution, especially in applications for which low signal quality or reliability can be tolerated and battery-operated devices can be easily accessed. But in many newer IoT applications that require a lot of bandwidth, power or reliability, a wired or hybrid connection is key.

GlenNiece Kutsch is a product line manager for Transition Networks, a provider of innovative, high-value data network integration solutions. Prior to joining Transition Networks, she worked in the broadband (telecommunications, CATV and wireless) connectivity industry. Kutsch holds a BBA degree from Iowa State University and an MBA degree from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.