If your company has IoT functionality or apps that work with your products, you probably take thousands (or more) connectivity and WiFi-related complaints from customers. An R&D partner for a major grill manufacturer engaged me as they began researching customers’ IoT WiFi connectivity problems, how to solve their IoT connectivity issues, and how to reduce their WiFi customer complaints. In this case, the solution was found in cellular. And yes, I know your concerns!
Problems When Using WiFi Work for IoT
While most consumers would say they are comfortable with their router and wireless settings, it turns out, the number one reason end-users reach out to technical support is WiFi connectivity problems. For this reason, the grill manufacturer was looking for other connection methods that could help limit the calls to technical support and provide a better overall customer experience (CX).
IoT integration on every project is different, but the key challenge is how to connect everything with minimal customer friction. It seems straightforward until you realize how many options there are, and the nuance in connecting IoT and “smart” devices. Not only are there multiple options, but many IoT projects can require you to stitch multiple technologies together for the final solution.
Adding to the complexity is whether the product is geared toward businesses or consumers. While B2B products often rely on cellular, B2C solutions almost always avoid using it unless the product is related to travel, tracking, or a need to cover large land areas. This is primarily because of added price, and concerns with a single carrier being able to cover all their customers across the country.
How Do Legacy IoT and Smart Home Devices Connect?
Traditional smart home products like smart lighting, smart locks, and sensors like leak detection, temperature, open/close, etc., often utilize proprietary protocols like Zigbee, Z-Wave, Insteon, etc. Unfortunately, these protocols require a hub to communicate between the end device and your internet connection or PC if on a closed system. For this reason, many companies are moving toward WiFi. Because most consumers already have it installed at their house it seems like a safe bet, but IoT WiFi connectivity can pose significant challenges.
Challenges using WiFi for IoT Devices
Challenges using WiFi for IoT devices are understandably surprising. But when you consider the nature of how a grill is used it opens your eyes to a whole new set of WiFi challenges for a wide array of consumer devices. In the case of a connected grill, it is most likely the device furthest from your WiFi router. The additional interference from heavy-duty doors, garage doors, and exterior walls with insulation weaken the signal as well. Most routers are not strong enough.
Another limiting factor most OEMs don’t consider is consumers’ lack of a properly set up2.4 Ghz WiFi connection. It’s true most WiFi routers have both built in these frequencies built in these days, but data suggests many consumers don’t set up their 2.4Ghz network. Most consumers don’t notice because most modern devices like smartphones, tablets, PCs are typically using 5Ghz.
As for the OEMs, they are most likely utilizing 2.4Ghz because the chipset was less expensive than a 5Ghz or dual-frequency one. It may be possible they also believe the 2.4Ghz frequency will be less congested since most things are using 5Ghz. (My money is on the first reason.) It makes sense then, why IoT WiFi connectivity problems are experienced by consumers at a frequent rate.
Known alternatives to WiFi for IoT devices
There are alternatives to WiFi for IoT devices obviously. The first is LoRaWAN. LoRaWAN is built for low bandwidth IoT solutions and has much greater range than WiFi or any of those other smart home protocols. The problem is that OEMs would still need a gateway or hub to bridge the grill or device to the consumer’s internet connection. A purpose-built device designed for easy connection to the sensors in the grill or other outdoor device, could increase the chance for user error, prompting another customer service call.
There are some companies working on nation-wide managed LoRa networks, but we are a few years away from covering enough of the United States to really make it a viable network for this scenario. With that being said it definitely could be a next-gen option.
Where do these IoT WiFi connectivity problems push us to? Cellular. Traditionally, using cellular for IoT smart home devices is a fool’s errand. But times have changed.
Using cellular for IoT smart home and “smart yard” devices
Using cellular for IoT smart home devices (and smart yard) is thought to be too expensive. Others concerns center on trusting carriers to have coverage where my customers need it.
I’ll get to pricing shortly, but all of the major carriers claim to cover about 99% of the United States, and even in low-bandwidth or low-coverage areas using cellular for IoT smart home devices is still a viable option. Due to the amount of data and packet sizes that will be transferred, a strong signal isn’t required. Even at 1 bar of service, which wouldn’t support a voice call, an IoT device could function with ease.
In the event a manufacturer must use a single carrier, there is still a high probability the majority of customers will be able to use this connection just fine. If your company wants to hedge your bets, you could utilize a Multi-IMSI SIM card. Sometimes called SmartSIM, these are SIMs that connect with the majority of carrier networks, utilizing the strongest network in that specific location.
Reducing WiFi-related customer service calls with cellular
For long-range considerations, moving your IoT devices and “smart yard” tech to cellular is obviously a superior option over WiFi or Bluetooth, but how does it limit the calls to technical support? Since customers already utilize a smartphone app and a user account to communicate with the grill, the app could also trigger the SIM activation. There will always be chances of a system issue or technical glitch, but it should be a very small percentage.
Is using cellular for IoT costly?
One of the concerns when using cellular for IoT is the cost, but when you look at the amount of data needed per session and how often the average person uses their grill, and other smart yard tech, the price can be reasonable. With scale, it would likely only cost an average of about $1-$2/month per SIM inside a smart grill. At that price there are several ways to cover the costs that include absorbing the cost into the cost of the grill, passing cost onto the customers that want to utilize the smart features or even adding advertising or one-tap eCom options into the smartphone app.
Whether you are manufacturing existing connected devices or are in the R&D or engineering phase for a new product, choosing the best option for connectivity is one of the most important decisions you will make. IoT WiFi connectivity problems and other protocols will impact call center loads and customer experience for years, so don’t be afraid to revisit this over time as technology is always improving and new tech is often released.
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