The Internet of Things (IoT) and machine-to-machine (M2M) communications were two of the hottest topics in wireless networking for 2014, and with good reason: the range of potential applications is vast, and the number of new products likely to be sold here equally so – certainly in the billions. From personal fitness to healthcare to physical security to industrial to energy management to – let your imagination be your guide – the IoT/M2M universe is filled with opportunities that delight engineers, manufacturers, software developers, marketers, and investors alike. Looking at this from really a big-picture perspective, some even believe that M2M and IoT might actually redefine the global economy itself.
But when the subjects of M2M and IoT (Farpoint Group defines IoT as M2M where IP-based Internet connectivity is a factor) are discussed, Wi-Fi® isn’t always the first wireless networking technology that comes to mind. And, if we look at the set of features and requirements commonly associated with M2M and IoT, it’s easy to see why this might be so: low cost, low power, compact form factors, rapid connection setup times, and massively scalable deployments top the list. Isn’t Wi-Fi, then, better suited to linking handsets and tablets to the Internet? Wi-Fi leading the IoT revolution? Really?
While more traditional applications of Wi-Fi will most certainly continue to grow, anyone writing off Wi-Fi as a leading contender in M2M and IoT is clearly not thinking the opportunity through. Farpoint Group expects, in fact, that Wi-Fi will frequently be the technology of choice in M2M/IoT. Why? Let’s revisit the requirements above.
- Low Cost – In the semiconductor world, most chips have roughly the same production cost, given some variability in die size and process technology, and with costs falling with increasing volume. While Wi-Fi chips have historically been priced higher than those based on the technologies more often associated with M2M and IoT, manufacturing costs are not necessarily greater. We expect, then, that Wi-Fi chips used in IoT applications and produced in very large numbers will in fact be very cost effective and comparable in price to any other suitable wireless components. And the greater functionality of Wi-Fi (security, power management, robust and mature firmware and drivers, etc.) adds significant value to that cost calculation – more on cost below.
- Low Power – IoT applications will seldom require 802.11n and 802.11ac levels of throughput, but lower-cost and more power-friendly solutions based on these (single-stream, for example) will typically be applied and implemented using modern low-power semiconductor process technologies. Of course, not all IoT applications require battery power, but those that do will see no disadvantage from going the Wi-Fi route as Wi-Fi’s long history of power-saving capabilities applies quite nicely to IoT.
- Compact form factors – Ditto for both the size of chips (including highly-integrated solutions-on-a-chip), modules, and finished goods. Wi-Fi solutions can be just as small as those based on other wireless technologies, and can even be ruggedized for harsher environments if required.
- Rapid connection setup time – This is one area where Wi-Fi has not been a leader, but activity now underway within the IEEE 802.11ai Working Group is considering just this issue. And, yes, we fully expect a more than viable outcome here.
- Massive (scalable) deployments – M2M and IoT applications range from residential-scale to, conceivably, tens (or more) of millions of nodes across enormous geographies. Wi-Fi can address this possibility via industry-leading inter-node range, if required, but also via mesh architectures. These are already mature within the Wi-Fi world, and available in a variety of implementations from purely peer-to-peer to integrated into fixed, mobile, or re-locatable/rapidly-deployable infrastructures.
Now let’s add in the advantages that are already inherent in Wi-Fi:
- IP-based communications – Wi-Fi is perfect for IoT – it’s already at home with IP addressing, including v6, and the broad family of IP protocols overall. And, very importantly, IoT always requires IP. If a given solution doesn’t natively speak IP then a separate gateway is required – adding expense, complexity, and potentially a single point of failure, all very bad ideas in any M2M application.
- Security and integrity – Wi-Fi already includes excellent security in the form of WPA2™, and Wi-Fi system vendors have been building highly-reliable, mission-critical, large-scale infrastructure solutions for years.
- Leveraging existing infrastructure – And that existing secure and reliable infrastructure can give M2M and IoT a head start in a vast number of venues where Wi-Fi is already hard at work. As they’re typically installed from scratch, and often for a single application, M2M or IoT solutions based on other technologies can get very, very expensive indeed. So, then: Wi-Fi-based IoT cost-effective? You bet!
- Flexibility – And it gets better – the under-development 802.11ah standard will likely re-claim access to the 900 MHz unlicensed band, and potentially other unlicensed spectrum below 1 GHz, for IoT. These lower frequencies are well-suited to IoT applications, where favorable propagation characteristics often matter but limited bandwidth does not.
- And beyond – As was noted above, most M2M and IoT applications won’t require long range or high throughput. But, if they do, or if applications evolve over time to require either or both of these factors, guess which wireless technology transparently scales to meet this need?
Other established and capable technologies can’t be ignored – but it’s also easy to see their limitations relative to Wi-Fi. So the bottom line here is that there is no reason to believe that Wi-Fi won’t become a leader, and maybe even the leader, in the future of M2M and IoT.
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