Choosing the Best Communication Configuration for Your IoT Device Network

Created: April 27, 2017
Updated: December 21, 2020

Un crocodile dans un marais

Not planning your IoT system communication adds cost and adventure to installing your products.

It’s all set, you have perfected the design of the latest state-of-the-art IoT fork and you’re feeling unstoppable.  Nothing could throw a wrench in your plans now...except maybe your fork's network connection. What’s the difference between a smart fork that can't connect and an ordinary fork? You paid a lot more for the smart one! That’s why it’s imperative that you choose the correct network configuration for your IoT product. Upfront planning and testing of the network communication you want to use for your IoT product can make a huge difference in a successful product deployment. I learned this lesson when I ended up hiking through calf-deep mud, with thumb sized mosquitos and actual alligators to install an extra base station that we hadn’t planned for. We had tested this IoT system in a park and didn’t consider how much vegetation would be blocking the sensors in the field. In practice, the transmitter range was halved and the number of receivers was doubled.

Unless you’re really desperate to spend more time on field installations, it’s important to understand how and where your IoT system will be deployed. That helps you plan for the connectivity, network support, and scalability needs of your product.

What does my network need?

When you start planning your IoT network, you’ll have two types of communication components to consider: the transmitters (Tx) and receivers (Rx). The transmitters are connected to the actual sensors, buttons, or other information collection modules that are doing most of the work in an IoT system. The receivers collect the data from the transmitters that are within range. The Rx might store or display the data before it is uploaded to the cloud.

What is the best network for my system?

Before you start designing anything for an IoT system, you should decide what kind of network you need for good communications coverage between the Rx/Tx (we pronounced them “ricks” and “ticks”).  It’s important to design the system as a whole, and plan how modules will communicate and over what distance. Otherwise, you’ll be telling all the kids how back in your day, you had to slog through mud and alligators to put up extra base stations. There are three basic configurations for an IoT system:

  • Devices that upload directly to the cloud: In some situations, your device may upload directly to the cloud, usually via wifi, a cellular network, or even satellites. Since reaching a cell tower, or outer space is a long transmission distance, this approach usually requires a higher transmission power from your devices.

  • A custom network of only your devices: Using a custom base station gives you a lot of control over hardware selection and security. You need to make sure that you select communication hardware that has enough transmission range to cover the distance between your base station, and each Tx module you want to receive data from.

    Learn from my mistakes, and test this type of setup in the most realistic environment possible. It’s likely that the range listed in the hardware specs are probably “best case scenario” distances. The actual transmission range can be affected by walls, vegetation, or anything else that obscures the line-of-sight between the base station and a module.

Also, unless you want a closed system, you’ll still need a way to access your data from the base station. That could be another transmitter, a hardline into the network, or physically accessing the base station with a USB drive.

  • A hybrid approach Here your devices send data to a base station receiver that can transmit the data to the cloud. Creating your own base station (either custom hardware or an application that runs on existing phones or computers) requires additional overhead. However, it’s a nice compromise between transmission power and infrastructure costs.

Be aware that any base station that contains both a receiver and a transmitter will require additional testing for its FCC certification before you can sell or deploy that product.

Where will your product be used?

If you aren’t certain what network approach is best, then consider where your system will be used. Environmental conditions and obstacles, like weather, walls, and plants can affect transmission range. You might also have existing infrastructure, like a cell tower or wifi network, that your product can utilize.

  • Outdoors: Products outside, but still near a home might be able to access a household wifi network. Usually, a system out in the wilderness needs to transmit farther, which requires more power. You’ll probably want a base station that can receive data from several nearby modules, and upload everything it collects. We used a base station but lost transmission range due to vegetation growth, so I recommend testing the communication under a variety of conditions. It will help you to avoid last minute changes to installation locations, and how much hardware is actually required.

  • Household and Wearables: Something like a Dash button at home, or a Fitbit that hangs out with you all day, can probably use your phone or computer as a base station (over wifi or Bluetooth) rather than requiring a custom solution for your system. Smart fork designers, this section is for you!

  • Industrial: Any system that collects proprietary or sensitive data will need to be especially concerned with security. A custom base station with restricted access to the data is one way to keep sensitive data out of the wrong hands.

No Wifi

Before you install your IoT system, make sure your communication network will provide adequate coverage!

Planning and designing for your IoT network setup in advance will save a lot of trouble down the road. Testing the network layout under a range of conditions is also hugely important, and would have saved me a lot of bug bites. More importantly, it also would have saved us thousands of dollars in additional hardware and installation costs. This is the kind of mistake easily made in new products and can cost you time, money, and customers.

Fortunately, once you’ve planned your communication configuration, you can use PCB tools like Altium Vault® to help you identify and manage the that will meet your performance requirements. By selecting the right at the beginning, you’ll set yourself up for a successful product deployment. After you’ve successfully designed and tested your product, you can reuse the communications section of the design for new versions and products with modular design tools. There are Altium representatives standing by to help you get started now!

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