When determining the most suitable technology for your IoT project, whether it be cellular connectivity or LoRaWAN, it is advisable to begin by defining the intended application and then selecting the technology that best fits it. This guide will provide the information you require to make an informed decision.
One of the common questions asked by organizations that are developing connected devices is the difference between cellular modules and LoRaWAN.
While the technical comparison between LoRaWAN and cellular connectivity is important, it should not be the primary focus. Instead, it’s crucial to start with a well-defined understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve and then evaluate the technology. LoRaWAN and cellular cannot be considered as exact substitutes for each other, so it is essential to comprehend how the selected technology aligns with your business objectives.
In this article, we’ll provide a comprehensive overview of LoRaWAN, its comparison with cellular connectivity, and a step-by-step approach to finding the most suitable connectivity technology for your product by starting with your business needs and use case.
LoRaWAN is a long-range, low-power, low-data rate wireless protocol that operates on either 900MHz in the Americas and ANZ or 868MHz in Europe and Asia. No SIM card is necessary to access these networks, only a LoRaWAN radio and unique ID.
There are two types of LoRaWAN networks:
- Private: These are networks established by the customer, such as in a mine or farm.
- Public: These are networks established by Network Operators, such as Actility or Senet, that customers can use.
Applications of LoRaWAN Technology
LoRaWAN has found a broad range of applications in the IoT domain. A few well-known use cases include:
- Smart cities: IoT plays a critical role in smart cities, such as monitoring connected infrastructure, utilities, parking management, air quality measurement, etc.
- Smart grids: The backbone of smart grids is IoT, and LoRaWAN is utilized for connecting densely deployed electric meters, EV chargers, battery monitors, etc. in urban and suburban areas.
- Agriculture: Monitoring livestock, crops, and soil are common IoT use cases in agriculture. LoRaWAN is used to gather vast amounts of data, aggregate it through a gateway, and transmit it to the cloud for analysis.
Economic and Technical Comparison of Cellular and LoRaWAN
When comparing Cellular devices with LoRaWAN technologies, it’s common for companies to focus on the technology first. However, this approach is flawed.
The better way to proceed is by starting with a clear understanding of the business challenges to be addressed, the volume and frequency of data necessary to generate value, and the environments in which the product will operate. These factors should then drive the technology selection.
There are significant differences in the cost structures of cellular and LoRaWAN connectivity solutions. While LoRaWAN may seem more cost-effective compared to cellular deployments, it’s important to keep in mind that these technologies address different problems and cannot be considered direct substitutes for one another.
Cost should not be the sole determining factor in technology selection, as doing so can lead to increased costs in the long run. An inflexible solution that does not effectively address business needs or is not adaptable to new requirements could result in additional costs and negatively impact the overall success of the project.
In this section, we will explore both the economic and technical comparisons between cellular connectivity and a public-network LoRaWAN solution.
|Profile||Deployments of sensors and meters in high density and lower cost configurations||Deployments of assets with a lower concentration and higher price point, such as vehicles, control systems, and measuring instruments|
|Bandwidth||Low. Suitable for small and occasional data transmissions, but high bandwidth requirements such as over-the-air updates may prove difficult.||Medium. Better suited for high-bandwidth applications, can support over-the-air (OTA) updates, which makes it easier to remotely manage and update connected devices.|
|Connectivity Module Cost||$8~10/module, plus board, MCU, antenna, etc.||$300~400 all in|
|Power Consumption||Very Low. Best for situations where a long-lasting battery is necessary, typically for several years.||Medium to Low. Best suited for situations where a constant or periodic power source is present.|
|Security||Good. Implements 128-bit AES encryption for both network and application session keys for added security.||Best. Cellular providers have a strong and reliable security infrastructure in place with their encryption and authentication standards at the network level, making it secure for communication. Additionally, SIM cards used in cellular devices also offer high-level security.|
|Coverage||LoRaWAN availability and performance are highly dependent on the region and the specific operator. Operators in this space include Senet, Actility, The Things Network, Machine Q, Helium, and SigFox.||Multi-carrier SIM card offers seamless worldwide connectivity through its integration with over 200+ global providers. With multiple carrier options available in most countries, the device will intelligently select the best operator for the highest level of reliability and performance.|
|Latency||Variable. Best for simple devices with small amounts of data, requiring infrequent transmission with intervals of several minutes. Some free networks have restrictions on daily device usage, and the latency may vary based on network traffic and usage.||Low The federated infrastructure provides reliable connectivity and consistent uptime for devices.|
|Reliability||Variable. LoRaWAN is vulnerable to jamming and disruptions, particularly in populated areas, due to its usage of public frequency bands. With shared infrastructure, devices can transmit anytime, causing unexpected message loss due to interference.||High. Cellular networks are known for their high reliability and availability. To ensure data transmission, automatic retry mechanisms can be implemented between the edge and the cloud.|
|Scalability||Low. LoRaWAN’s infrastructure is subject to potential issues as nodes can transmit data simultaneously and may interfere with each other. This also restricts the capacity of a gateway to accommodate a large number of devices and the total bandwidth of a network.||High. Cellular devices rely on the well-established infrastructure used by cell phones, which is regularly maintained and upgraded by providers. This infrastructure is managed through a federated system, ensuring all devices receive fair access to spectrum and bandwidth for seamless operation.|
|Certification||DIY. Certifying your devices through the LoRa Alliance is up to you, but it is not mandatory for all public networks. The frequency spectrum used by LoRaWAN is shared with other non-LoRa devices that may or may not be certified. This means that if other devices are using the spectrum inefficiently, it could negatively impact the reliability of communication for your devices.||Pre-Certified. Certification is a mandatory requirement for all devices utilizing cellular networks and licensed frequency bands. This ensures that all devices operate harmoniously on the network and that your devices will be able to communicate reliably. Some cellular modules are pre-certified, reducing the certification workload for your engineering team.|
Optimizing Connectivity Technology to Suit the Asset Value and Unit Economics
Here is a general guideline to ensure that the connectivity technology you select is suitable for your specific needs and business model.
LoRaWAN is an ideal solution when the individual device being monitored has low value, but the data collected from multiple devices is valuable. This is the case in applications such as soil sensing and metering. It is also best suited for situations where a recurring fee is charged for the aggregated data, rather than for each individual asset.
For instance, LoRaWAN is more suitable for obtaining weather data from 100 remote stations in the Permian Basin, as opposed to a single eBike that generates revenue.
Cellular technology is a good choice for connected assets that have high value, either because they generate revenue during operation or a failure would result in a cost, such as a fine, service call, or unplanned equipment breakdown. It is also a good fit for scenarios where each deployed product can earn a substantial subscription revenue.
Connectivity Technology Selection and Impact on Product Features and Performance
In the following section, we will analyze the crucial elements of each connectivity technology and explain how they will affect the functionality, performance, and cost of your product.
LoRaWAN operates on the public spectrum, which can be used by anyone. This makes devices using LoRaWAN vulnerable to interference from other devices also utilizing the public spectrum. In areas with high device density, maintaining reliable connectivity can be a challenge due to increased interference. The problem may worsen as more devices are deployed on the spectrum.
On the other hand, cellular providers own blocks of the radio spectrum, having acquired them through purchase. They have a vested interest in maintaining and protecting the frequencies on their block. Although cellular carriers have a monopoly on their block, the federated nature of cellular systems means that they maintain the infrastructure to ensure high performance and availability.
The difference between cellular and LoRaWAN can be compared to the difference between a mixed-use walking path and a highway.
The centralized structure of cellular technology also presents the possibility of a centralized support system. This allows for quicker response times in case of an interruption or any other disruption.
Connecting to public LoRaWAN networks is possible, but you may also need to establish your own network through companies like Senet or Actility. Overall, LoRaWAN is relatively straightforward to set up, and many companies offer support in deploying it.
Cellular technology, while it may bring added complexity to connected products, is becoming increasingly easier to manage. Gone are the days when you had to directly deal with cellular carriers who may not serve your service area. You can now work with MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators) that allow for widespread deployment without coverage concerns.
With LoRaWAN, the underlying technology is owned by a single company, which represents a risk in your supply chain and a potential single point of failure. On the other hand, cellular technology is based on standards established and ratified by multiple companies, providing you with numerous options and reducing your dependence on a single vendor.
LoRaWAN offers a key advantage in that it requires low power, to the extent that devices can operate on coin cell batteries. This feature can be a significant benefit, especially for certain use cases. However, it’s important to note that if you attempt to increase the power or range, it may significantly reduce the battery life.
Cellular devices consume more power, but they offer a wider range and greater bandwidth via the networks. Many cellular devices provide several power management options, including sleep modes, to help manage power usage.
High-Density Device Support
When you need to manage a large number of devices in a concentrated area, LoRaWAN is a suitable option. With its capability to allow each device to connect to a single gateway and transmit data to the cloud, LoRaWAN is ideal for tracking applications, such as livestock monitoring for a herd of cattle.
On the other hand, cellular connectivity may encounter challenges when there are too many devices attempting to connect to the same tower simultaneously. Hence, it is essential to consider the device concentration when selecting a connectivity solution for your use case.
For example, in a livestock tracking scenario where there are hundreds or thousands of devices in a specific area, LoRaWAN provides seamless transmission of location data from the edge to the cloud, while cellular devices may experience connectivity issues due to the high density of devices.
Ultimately, the decision between LoRaWAN and Cellular as a connectivity solution should be based on the specific needs of your project. If the advantages and capabilities enabled by connectivity are not sufficient to yield a significant profit for your product, the low cost of LoRaWAN may be a better option.
However, if your connected product has the potential to generate substantial economic benefits and requires higher power and bandwidth capabilities, cellular connectivity may be the solution to consider.