The IoT and the network: Why Wi-Fi is the horse to bet on


We have all heard the statistics about the Internet of Things (IoT): 200 billion connected devices by 2020 according to Gartner; the global market to hit $1.7 trillion (£1.2tn) by the same year according to IDC. Yet the network capability underpinning it remains to be decided.

The industry has tried to plough some ideas and investment into the issue – in January, the Wi-Fi Alliance launched Wi-Fi HaLow, a new standard aiming for low power Wi-Fi solutions and offering longer power connectivity and longer range targeting IoT devices. But is it enough?

William Webb is an IEEE Fellow and veteran of spectrum analysis, having led major reviews from Ofcom on spectrum usage and regulation. He argues that for short range, and because of its ubiquity, Wi-Fi is the obvious choice, even though it of course wasn’t designed for IoT applications. “Every home in the civilised world has got a Wi-Fi router now, and therefore if you buy an IoT device for your home that’s got Wi-Fi in it, there’s a chance it will immediately connect up…without any kind of new networking,” he tells IoT Tech.

Yet he adds the situation is not cut and dried. “The jury’s still out as to what will happen in the home,” he adds. “In an ideal world what you’ll probably do is design a completely new wireless technology that is perfect for the Internet of Things, that can be deployed alongside a Wi-Fi router within the home. In practice, that’s very difficult to make happen and to get everyone to deploy, so what tends to happen is you bumble along with what you’ve got, and try to make the best of it.”

In Webb’s opinion, that is what probably will happen. Wi-Fi will be the frontrunner because it’s there, it works, and over time the Wi-Fi standards will evolve to be better in areas such as battery life. Other contenders, such as Bluetooth Low Energy – not powerful enough and in too different an area to Wi-Fi, argues Webb – and ZigBee – better designed and starting to gain traction but without the ubiquity of Wi-Fi – are out there, but not at the same level.

For short range and the consumer market, it makes sense – but it also makes sense for the short range parts of the enterprise IoT market, such as factory automation. For longer range jobs, the work that LoRa, SIGFOX and certain mobile operators is the way forward. Yet Webb argues there is uncertainty in the market which is stunting adoption.

“All of this uncertainty is one of the reasons why the Internet of Things isn’t taking off at anywhere near the speed people predicted,” he says. “It’s still very difficult if you’re a device manufacturer to know what chip to put in your device, and if you want a smart washing machine, what connectivity chip do you put in [it] in the factory where it’s made? Is it Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, ZigBee, 2G, 3G, SIGFOX, LoRa?

“Since you don’t know and you don’t want to get it wrong, the best thing to do is nothing at all, and of course if you do nothing at all then it doesn’t help the market develop in any way, shape or form,” adds Webb. “If I absolutely had to, I would go for Wi-Fi on the basis that it’s going to sit in the home, most homes have got Wi-Fi…yes it’s a slight pain to get it connected but things are gradually getting better in that space.” in hearing industry leaders discuss subjects like this and sharing their IoT use-cases? Attend the IoT Tech Expo World Series events with upcoming shows in Silicon Valley, London and Amsterdam to learn more.

The show is co-located with the AI & Big Data Expo, Cyber Security & Cloud Expo and Blockchain Expo so you can explore the entire ecosystem in one place.

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