What Wireless Communication Standard to Use for Your Next Project

The hobbyist wireless communications space is becoming increasingly crowded with different radios and protocols — this guide will help you choose the right one for your next project!

TL;DR

If you’re just looking for a recommendation without any information, read this section. I go into much more detail below.

  • I need to transmit a lot of data back and forth from the internet from a remote device: Cellular
  • I need to transmit a lot of data back and forth from the internet from a non-remote device: Wi-Fi
  • I need to communicate with a phone: Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)
  • I have extreme budget and/or power constraints: Generic 2.4GHz (nRF24L01)
  • I need a really small transmitter: Generic 433 MHz
  • I need extreme flexibility and customization: Amateur Radio

Low-Power Wide Area Networks (LPWANs)

If you’re looking for a system that allows you to send a little bit of data a long distance without much power, LPWANs are the way to go! The main players in this space are LoRa and Sigfox.

LoRa

LoRa, short for long range, is a standardized communication protocol that uses the 900 and 400 MHz ISM bands to send data upwards of a few miles. LoRa modules are inexpensive and easy to integrate with microcontrollers such as Arduino devices or computers like the Raspberry Pi. You can pick up a LoRa module from Amazon for around $20.

The Things Network gateways

Sigfox

Sigfox coverage in Europe

Connecting to the Internet

Another common use case for wireless communication technologies is sending data back and forth from the internet. The most common technologies that developers utilize for this application are Wi-Fi and cellular.

Wi-Fi

You’re likely already very familiar with Wi-Fi. It offers extremely fast data transfer rates (that you can’t really take advantage of with a slow microcontroller) at medium ranges. Boards like the Raspberry Pi have Wi-Fi built-in, and you can purchase inexpensive modules for around $1 that allow microcontrollers such as Arduino devices to utilize Wi-Fi.

Cellular Networks

Cellular modules are more expensive and use more power than Wi-Fi modules but offer unparalleled internet coverage. Some microcontrollers, such as the Particle Electron, have cellular modules built in. You can also buy 3G Arduino-compatible modules for around $30. You can purchase USB cellular dongles that allow devices like the Raspberry Pi to communicate over cellular networks.

Device-to-Device Communications

If you need to have two microcontrollers communicate with one another then you’re in luck; there’s plenty of options out there.

Low-Cost 2.4 GHz

rRF24L01 modules

Zigbee

Zigbee is a standardized communication technology designed to allow interoperable communications between devices. The XBee form-factor is extremely popular for Arduino devices. These modules are much pricier than some radios but offer great reliability and interoperability between existing devices.

Generic 433 MHz

Communicating with Phones, Tablets, and Computers

There’s really only one contender in this space: Bluetooth. Every major phone and tablet and most computers have Bluetooth communications chips; this makes communicating with a variety of different devices extremely convenient. Standards such as Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE 4.0) allow tiny wearable devices to operate for months at a time without recharging or changing batteries. You can pick up inexpensive Bluetooth 4.0 modules for $10, or more well-documented modules from companies such as Adafruit for around $20.

Amateur Radio

The term “amateur radio” refers to radio activities in amateur radio, or “ham radio”, bands. Amateur radio equipment can be difficult to operate, and you need a license to do so, but it offers the utmost flexibility for unique communications tasks. It requires much more radio knowledge to construct a functioning amateur radio communications system than some of these cheap modules but it is a rewarding experience.

I'm a Harvard student, maker, and radio enthusiast. Check out my book on radio communications at amzn.to/341cywA and my website at www.AlexWulff.com

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