Convergence of Wireless IoT Connectivity
Wireless connectivity is a key component in enabling IoT with a broad range of technologies, standards and protocols being used across the ecosystem. These wireless connectivity technologies are categorized based on a few parameters such as transmission range, data speed and functionality. This article will mainly discuss the convergence of these technologies, but first let’s look at the different groups of wireless IoT Connectivity.
Low-power wireless technologies include connectivity standards such as Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), Thread, ZigBee, Z-Wave, EnOcean, Wireless HART and other Sub GHz protocols designed to provide short range connectivity between 10m to 100m transmission range.
High performance wireless technologies such as Wi-Fi & Bluetooth (classic & smart ready) are built to provide transmission range between 100m to 1km.
Low power wide area network covers up to 100km in distance and mostly uses cellular technologies such as LTE-M and NB-IoT or unlicensed spectrum such as SigFox and LoRa.
Given the wide variety of technologies, selecting an optimal wireless solution for an IoT application involves trade-offs between power consumption, bandwidth and range.
In the beginning, each of these technologies were built to enable connectivity in specific use cases, but over the years we have seen convergence of wireless technologies across applications. Some of these technologies are complementary to each other, while others are competitive. The following image illustrates that each wireless connectivity invented was linear and strictly functioned within its own group and addressed specific applications. However, in 2016, wireless technologies started to evolve beyond their original nature to address the needs of IoT.
Source: IHS Markit, 2019
Wi-Fi & Bluetooth invading Smart Home & IoT
Smart home products are not recent inventions. Early adopters have been using smart home products connected via technologies built and developed for smart home such as ZigBee, Z-Wave, Thread and DECT ULE. Now, with the ubiquitous growth in the smart home industry, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are invading the smart home connectivity space. Native technology standards for mobile devices, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth were not initially designed for smart home products. As smart home devices gained popularity among consumers, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth have been identified as common technologies that can be leveraged in smart home devices.
Bluetooth was initially designed to transmit data for short-range communication devices. Over the years, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) has expanded the technology from a protocol used in smartphones, audio headsets and notebooks to one that provides connectivity solutions for all IoT applications. One of the most notable evolutions of Bluetooth has been the Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) wireless protocol. The protocol is an ultra-low-power wireless protocol and operates in 2.4GHz ISM band extending Bluetooth’s ecosystem to connect applications with small battery capacities such as wearables, lighting and automotive. Another key requirement for IoT application is the mesh networking support. Mesh networking allows devices to communicate with any other device or node within a network without passing information through a hub. By using mesh network, the range between devices can be extended and this feature is very attractive, especially for IoT applications. Some of the low-power wireless technologies such as ZigBee, Thread and ANT+ included mesh support from their initial launch. In 2017, Bluetooth SIG introduced Bluetooth Mesh 1.0. The addition of mesh topology to BLE chips allows Bluetooth to compete with other mesh technologies.
Chipset vendors broaden horizons
The IoT market is evolving quickly, pushing chipset vendors to broaden their product offering to meet market demand. In May 2019, NXP Semiconductors announced the acquisition of Marvell’s Wi-Fi & Bluetooth/BLE combo solutions portfolio for $1.76 billion in cash. Through the acquisition NXP can now add Wi-Fi to its otherwise strong connectivity portfolio. Marvell’s Wi-Fi chips are found in many high-profile devices including Google Home devices, Microsoft Surface devices, Sony PS4, Microsoft Xbox One and Samsung Chromebooks.
In March 2019, a similar move was carried out by On Semiconductor when it acquired Quantenna in a $1.07 billion cash deal to expand the company’s connectivity portfolio by adding Wi-Fi.
Though Wi-Fi and Bluetooth have a huge momentum, there is plenty of demand for other technologies to bring their own advantages to the market. It is unlikely that the wireless connectivity for IoT will be dominated by a single protocol or standard. Almost all major chipset vendors such as Qualcomm, Cypress, Texas Instruments and Redpine Signals are offering wireless ICs with multi-protocol wireless connectivity allowing interoperability between wireless protocol and standards.
Apart from individually evolving, it is most likely that these connectivity standards will increasingly work together to complement each other meeting the demands of IoT.
As the line between low-power wireless technologies and high-performance wireless technologies are blurring, IHS Markit has combined the High Performance Wireless Connectivity Intelligence Service and Low-power Wireless Connectivity Intelligence Service. The combined service will be available as Wireless IoT Connectivity Intelligence Service.