Internet of Things Connectivity Option Analysis: IEEE 802.15.4 technologies


Originally released in 2003, IEEE 802.15.4 defines a physical layer (PHY) and media access control layer (MAC) on top of which others can build different network and application layers. The most well-known are ZigBee and 6LoWPAN. IEEE 802.15.4 defines operation in the 2.4 GHz band using DDSS to alleviate narrowband interferences, realizing a data rate of 250 kbps. However, IEEE 802.15.4 has a chip rate of 2 Mbps due to spreading. IEEE 802.15.4 also defines operation in sub-GHz bands, but has failed to take full advantage of these frequency bands: IEEE 802.15.4 specification only defines very low GFSK data rates, 20 kbps and 40 kbps, in these sub-GHz bands, and only allows a single channel in the European 868 MHz band (868.0 -868.6 MHz). These restrictions make the 2.4 GHz variants of IEEE 802.15.4 more attractive, accounting for their wider adoption to date.

IEEE 802.15.4g amendment entitled “Amendment 3: Physical Layer (PHY) Specifications for Low-Data-Rate, Wireless, Smart Metering Utility Networks”, was approved in March 2012. IEEE 802.15.4g improves on the low data rates by enabling the usage of more sub-GHz frequency bands, e.g. 169.4-169.475 MHz and 863-870 MHz in Europe, 450-470 MHz in the US, 470-510 MHz and 779-787 MHz in China, and 917-923.5MHz in Korea. In addition, IEEE 802.15.4g introduces Multi Rate FSK (MR-FSK), OQPSK, and OFDM physical layers, all applicable to these sub-GHz bands. Nevertheless, MR-FSK can still only achieve 200 kbps in the 863-870 MHz band in Europe by using Filtered 4FSK modulation. Higher data rates require MR-OFDM, which may prove inappropriately complex for low-cost and low-power devices. With these new physical layers also come additional complexity from the support of more advanced Forward Error Correction (FEC) schemes, and backward compatibility hassle, as supporting the previous FSK and OQPSK physical layers is mandated. Despite the sensible technical considerations that are generally well-suited for powered device such as smart grid and utilities, there is limited availability of 802.15.4g-enabled chipsets. Consequently, IEEE 802.15.4g will take some time for IEEE 802.15.4g to evolve and to grow before it can be proven as a viable option for the IoT.

The most common flavor of IEEE 802.15.4 operating in the 2.4 GHz provides limited range due to fundamental radio theory as mentioned earlier, and is further degraded by the environment. Moisture affects 2.4 GHz propagation significantly (this is why microwave ovens also operate at 2.4 GHz to be specifically well-absorbed by water), and any obstruction, such as a wall, door, or window, would attenuate 2.4 GHz signals more than 1 GHz.

This may be worked around by using multi-hop communication via special relay devices. These relays cannot be regular battery-powered devices since it implies continuous receiving. Literature states that such multi-hop approach increases overall power-consumption. IEEE 802.15.4 is often claimed to be a mesh topology to compensate for the limited radio coverage and reliability. Yet in practice, this is still a hybrid topology because only some particular AC-powered relays can provide relaying. Resource-constrained end devices would still see the network as a star topology.

As can be seen from some studies, multi-hop / mesh topology could be considered a future trend. However, the current single-radio approaches are not suitable for multi-hop and mesh. If relays and devices share the same medium for communication, then a mesh topology is not an efficient solution, as there cannot be multiple devices communicating simultaneously.

Moreover, it  has to be acknowledged that efficiently managing a large number of clients, ensuring their connectivity, and balancing the data flow in a star or tree topology network are already challenging enough not to add an unnecessary overhead of a multi-hop mesh solution.

Finally, IEEE 802.15.4 has not been designed to handle coexistence with other collocated IEEE 802.15.4 networks, or for device mobility. These limitations will prove to be a real problem when the number of connected devices grows dramatically in future IoT applications. Simply imagine the scenario when the nearby apartments within a same building install a compliant IEEE 802.15.4 IoT network and connected objects. IEEE 802.15.4 is not able to handle this situation. Until a solution is found to coordinate with the nearby IEEE 802.15.4 network, IEEE 802.15.4 is not a viable option for the IoT. This holds true for IEEE 802.15.4-based technologies, ZigBee and 6loWPAN, as well as BLE or Z-Wave, which have no provision for this kind of scenario as well.

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