WiFi vs LoRa for IoT device applications: which to choose and why?
We know the benefits of building and using IoT devices and systems, but how do we know which wireless technology is the best choice for our project? Let's dive in on IoT in general and specifically look at how we select between 2 wireless choices: WiFi and LoRa, from a practical sense rather than comparing technical specs.
The Internet of Things ("IoT") continues to be a very popular industry in the high-tech space, mainly because it spans so many newer and traditional industries. The IoT market has been doubling in size roughly every 5 years and is expected to continue to grow at a rate of 20-30% annually for the next decade. It's become a familiar term in conversation, and really it's just a quick way of talking about sensors that are (often wirelessly) connected to a central cloud-based data source used to create, refine and optimize performance. The reason it's so popular is because it's useful pretty much everywhere.
In a nutshell, "IoT" is the modern way to measure, monitor and (sometimes) control things remotely.
In your personal life, it's your Nest thermostat, your Ring doorbell, your AirTag in your suitcase... these are all examples of IoT.
In businesses, IoT is relied on heavily for monitoring and control. Factories are monitoring temperature for quality control and optimizing lighting for electrical cost savings and efficiencies. Logistics companies are tracking inventory movements, route performance and storage conditions. Facilities managers are optimizing parking availability, monitoring elevator performance and proactively detecting leaks before they turn into bigger messes.
At this point, most of us are familiar with WiFi. Most homes, businesses and public spaces have public or private Wi-Fi available, and most media devices (smartphones, tablets, media players) connect to Wi-Fi to access the Internet.
But not everyone will be familiar with LoRa. LoRa stands for Long Range. It's a nickname for a specific RAT (Radio Access Technology) that is a long-range, low power wireless communications method. Like WiFi, it's a "hub and spoke" approach to distribute a connection to the Internet - many end devices "spokes" or "node" speak to a "hub" or "gateway" to send and receive data to and from the Internet.
LoRa has 2 different modes of operation: point-to-point (P2P) and wide-area-network (LoRaWAN). These are similar to a private WiFi network and a public WiFi network - if you use P2P you need to set up your own gateway and program your end devices to connect to it. If you use LoRaWAN, your end device can connect to any gateway to communicate to the Internet.
Check out this cool article about a LoRa device connecting from over 700km away!
WiFi vs. LoRa
Let's start with a brief overview of technical specs:
Range: while Wi-Fi stays in the 15m-100m range, LoRa can go up to 20km!
Throughput: Wi-Fi tops out around 1.3 Gbps, substantially higher than LoRa's 50 kbps speeds
Power Consumption: Wi-Fi consumes a lot of power, LoRa is extremely low power
Cost: per unit to put a chip on your board is around $5-8 for Wi-Fi, $8-$15 for LoRa
What does this mean? It means that Wi-Fi will drain your battery quicker and you need to be close to your router, but you can stream stuff way faster. LoRa works a much longer distances but is really only suited for small bits of information at a time. And this is the essence of our post today - choosing between these technologies often comes down to your needs.
When we prototype for new projects, we look at all kinds of requirements, but the main ones are:
Is there access to electricity/wired power?
What materials are in the area surrounding the IoT device and how will they impact connectivity and antenna performance?
How often (if ever) can the device be accessed for maintenance?
How much data needs to be transmitted and how often?
Does the device move around (portable) or is it in a fixed spot?
What network infrastructure exists in that area already?
Do you have the means and ability to deploy your own network?
LoRa is a great option when you're communicating smaller pieces of data over potentially longer ranges, and is especially useful when the end devices need to rely on battery power.
WiFi is a great option when you may need to transmit bigger data blocks, including video clips or continuous streams of data, or if your environment that you're putting your devices in already has strong WiFi coverage!
Consider when you deploy your sensors and your gateway/router whether to use P2P/private connections to a specific gateway or WAN/public connections through any available gateway.
We did a case study in a large residential building that had thick concrete walls and floors between units and the initial sensors in the building (hundreds of leak detector pucks and connected water main controls) were having connectivity issues relying on P2P/private connections to specific hubs/gateways. When we switched over to WAN so the data blocks can come through any of the installed hubs in the building, connectivity went from ~70% of sensors reporting in to over 99%!
We choose suitable dev kits and modules to test out performance. For WiFi, often the ESP32 is a great, quick go-to for prototyping. For LoRa, our preference is the NM180100-based product like their EVB or their NM180310 Feather. Here are the LoRa/BLE products we use: https://www.tincubate.com/nmi
We have a blog post about our favourite LoRa gateways as well, you can check it out here: https://www.tincubate.com/post/choosing-a-lora-gateway-for-your-project
Comment to tell us what you like, questions you have and what you want to see more of so we can help you see the process behind real-world wireless tech product development.
tincubate supports a variety of different initiatives all being incubated together. We incubate our own ideas into solutions people can buy, and we help incubate other people's ideas into solutions they can own. We also own and operate a collective space where entrepreneurs and businesses can grow their ideas into reality, called the tincubator.
If you have a project you want to explore, reach out today.