Choosing Cellular or WiFi for your IoT Project

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19 May, 2022

Choosing Cellular or WiFi Article #2: Learn how you can determine the best choice for your IoT deployment.

This is the final article in a 2-part series about choosing cellular or Wi-Fi. Read article one here. 

There’s no one “best” choice for every single IoT project. Choosing cellular vs. WiFi comes with tradeoffs that have to be understood and managed to find the best option for your deployment. Here are a few things to consider as you decide which technology would be best for your IoT project.

Device Location and Movability

The first question that you should ask yourself is where your device is going to live and whether it's movable. For example, any device that's moving even a few-hundred feet, won’t work on WiFi because it's not going to have access to the same WiFi network across those different places where it needs to operate. If the device is movable, then cellular connectivity would be your best bet. Key examples here would be IoT-connected light electric vehicles, whether they’re part of a rideshare, privately owned, or used for last-mile delivery.

If the device is going to be part of a mostly stationary asset that will have constant access to a reliable WiFi network, then WiFi can be a good choice as well.

Number of Devices

A high concentration of connected devices may lend themselves to more to cellular connectivity. This is because the more devices connected to a single WiFi network, the more the signal degrades, potentially leading to lost connectivity. If you have a high concentration of devices in one location, cellular connectivity might be your best bet.

The Desired End-User Experience

If you want to provide a seamless onboarding experience for your customer, you want the device to be instantly connected to the Internet anywhere in the world, cellular would be your top choice.

WiFi requires the end user to set up the network and ensure the device can connect to it. This isn’t a problem if someone with the required technical expertise to do this is present, but can be difficult for those without.

The ongoing 3G sunsetting and introduction of 5G and other advanced technologies is bringing down the cost of cellular connectivity and widening the network coverage. More and more, IoT deployments that were previously impossible to run on cellular due to no coverage or high cost are becoming technically and financially feasible. Cellular will get increasingly more valuable relative to WiFi with the benefits of 5G and technology innovation.

Security Needs

Protecting your devices from bad actors is critical, especially if downtime or improper usage can lead to injury or equipment failure. In general, cellular networks offer considerable security advantages. They are encrypted by default, while encryption on WiFi connections must be enabled manually by the network owner. Additionally, security upgrades for cellular-connected devices happen automatically, while security patches must be installed manually for WiFi. If your devices are going to be connected to a public WiFi network, or if they’ll be connected to a private network that may not be adequately protected by the owner, cellular would be a safer choice.

Cellular or WiFi? Why not use both with Particle.

Particle, an integrated IoT Platform provides an opportunity for the best of both WiFi and cellular connection by working on the same Device OS operating system. Device OS offers an easy-to-use programming framework that makes it simple to write IoT applications that can connect via cellular or WiFi. It gives you the same interface no matter how you choose to connect to the Internet. "Whether you build your specific logic for a hot tub, a scooter, or a water monitoring solution, all of that's built on the same software interface called Device OS, regardless of its WiFi or tracker or site. That makes it really useful for customers who have what we call heterogeneous fleets,"  Calvin Jepson, senior manager of solutions architecture at Particle explains.

“Heterogeneous fleets” have multiple device types. If you’re using Particle devices, you’d be using a mix of the following:

  • Argon - a powerful Wi-Fi development kit

  • Boron - a powerful cellular enabled kit

  • Tracker/TrackerOne - a ready-to-go tracker SoM (system on a module) carrier board with optional weatherproof enclosure.

A heterogeneous fleet reduces technical debt associated with managing various projects and allows for switching between device/connectivity types for different stages of development.

In some cases, people start by buying Argons since there’s no subscription fee and you can develop firmware and conduct tests easily. Once it's time for them to start building the devices, they can switch from Argon to Boron and use the same code, which is a unique proposition that Particle can offer.

"Imagine you're a novice at squash, and you're a right-hand dominator. To get started quickly, you want to use your right hand. But once you join the major leagues, you have to use your left hand to be competitive," suggests Calvin. "It’s the same with IoT. You might be great at using cellular or WiFi during prototyping or at a small scale. But when you scale an IoT deployment, you might need to use completely different technologies, redesign a lot of stuff, and redo a lot of the work that you already did to build a scalable solution to be market-ready.”

Conclusion

By understanding the pros and cons of cellular and WiFi technologies you will be able to make the right choice for your IoT device. IoT platforms, such as Particle are enabling innovation by providing easier routes to creating prototypes that can then easily scale at the appropriate time. 

About the sponsor: Particle

Particle provides an integrated IoT Platform-as-a-Service that helps businesses connect, manage, and deploy software applications to connected devices, from edge to cloud and back. Over 240k developers, and 160+ Enterprise customers are building on Particle, from fast-growing startups to Fortune 100 companies. 

Our expertise goes beyond world-class technology, enabling next-generation business intelligence, insights, and expert customer support to make sure IoT projects succeed. So you can build the business of tomorrow, today.


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