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Why 2.4 GHz still makes sense for most IoT applications

In a world that has become increasingly addicted to upgrades, it’s not surprising to see more and more articles extolling the virtues of 5 GHz over the classic 2.4 GHz wireless band. Yet it’s foolish to automatically jump up to a higher band without fully understanding the situation.

Often, technologies that are considered to be “outdated” offer potential advantages over the latest and greatest upgrades the tech world has to offer. So before you completely write off 2.4 GHz as yesterday’s network, it’s worth taking a closer look at what’s behind the push toward 5 GHz and why staying on your current network might be the best plan of attack.

The wireless explosion

It doesn’t take more than a quick glance around any office to recognize that the wireless world is growing like crazy. More and more objects and devices are now connected to the internet with built-in wireless communication. In fact, according to Cisco, 2015 saw the addition of more than a half-billion mobile connections and devices.

As you may have guessed, industry analysts expect no slow-down in these trends. By 2020, Gartner predicts that the market for the internet of things will expand massively, reaching almost 21 billion connected devices.

Within this context, Wi-Fi has found quite a home on the 2.4 GHz band. Entire countries have built standards around connectivity designed for the band. Despite this reality, 2.4 GHz is getting a bad rap for a number of reasons.

First, as the number of devices connecting to the internet increases and bandwidth consumption grows ever larger, congestion and interference become more likely. You can liken this to trying to have a conversation in a room that’s slowly getting more and more crowded with louder and louder voices — until it becomes so loud that you simply cannot have a conversation anymore.

Opponents of 2.4 GHz also subscribe to the traditional “bigger is better” philosophy. Data-hungry devices want more streaming, more social media, more entertainment — and, naturally, the space that once housed the wireless demands of a much smaller environment start to feel overcrowded.

In the same manner that cellular companies pushed 2G aside for 3G, consumer wireless companies are assuming it must be best to also push into something bigger.

When (and why) 2.4 GHz still works

While these practical concerns make sense in certain situations, it’s important not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Today’s technology world revolves around the ability to communicate globally, and the 2.4 GHz band is one of the only — and clearly the most prevalent — industrial, scientific and medical (ISM) bands in the world.

This means that companies can deploy one technology strategy for nearly every country on the planet, ensuring that the cost of development stays low and that hardware compatibility stays high. The bottom line is that unlike the higher-frequency signal, 2.4 GHz works everywhere. And because it is an unlicensed (free) spectrum, technology providers gain the huge advantage of building with scale.

Speed Guide also points out that higher-frequency wireless signals have shorter ranges. This means that 2.4 GHz networks have more bandwidth, cover a larger range and penetrate solid objects better than 5 GHz networks. However, it’s important to utilize a technology that is robust enough to exploit the least congested portion of the band.

If you’re uncertain which side of the debate you fall on, here are three situations in which 2.4 GHz likely remains the right choice:

  1. Global deployments: Due to 2.4 GHz’s ubiquity, a company can build a single device and use it everywhere in the world. Other technologies that use different frequencies must manage a globally complicated set of hardware and regulatory restrictions.
  2. Better margins: In this IoT world that will be comprised of billions of connections, many devices will play subtle roles. Such devices won’t all be smartphones, smartwatches or connected cars; they will also be sensors in the middle of a cornfield or perhaps air quality monitors in a city. The ability to cost-effectively connect a device with 2.4 GHz is an absolutely critical piece of the equation.
  3. Greater capacity: Other narrow-band technologies within the ISM band have limited data rates. As technology providers look to connect thousands (or even millions) of devices, the 2.4 GHz band is capable of providing ample network capacity for the majority of IoT applications. In some cases, when comparing 2.4 GHz technology to something within the 900 MHz band, the ratio of supported devices is heavily weighted toward technologies relying on 2.4 GHz.

While it may be tempting to jump onto the “band” wagon and assume that bigger must be better, be sure to think about what your actual needs are before writing off 2.4 GHz as passe.

As a wireless band that’s available cost-free worldwide and offers greater bandwidth than 5 GHz does, there are plenty of reasons why staying on the 2.4 GHz spectrum may be the most practical choice — but only if you know how to use it right.

All IoT Agenda network contributors are responsible for the content and accuracy of their posts. Opinions are of the writers and do not necessarily convey the thoughts of IoT Agenda.

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