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Shop smart for wireless distance and data rates

Dec. 21, 2021
Comparing and contrasting available wireless technologies is crucial for selecting the most useful wireless solutions. Here are the characteristics and highlights of many of today's most popular options.

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Each of today's most prevalent wireless protocols has its own operating characteristics, including coverage and range/distance, power requirements, speed and bandwidth/throughput for transmitting data. These differences make it crucial for users to select the one best suited to meeting the needs of their application and setting. However, while each method has its own sweet spot where it works best, individual site characteristics and available technical tweaks still make assessments and testing essential for a successful wireless project.

  • Bluetooth (IEEE 802.15.1) usually has very short range of 10 meters (m) due to 2.5-millwatt transmission power, though more recent versions can range as far as 100 m and 40-400 m. It's a packet-based protocol that operates in the 2.4 GHz industrial, scientific, medical (ISM) radio frequency (RF) band, uses frequency hopping spread spectrum (FHSS), and transmits each packet of as much as 64 kB with 672 bytes on one of 79 channels that each have a 1-MHz bandwidth. Bluetooth 3.0 can reportedly negotiate a setup to move as fast as 24 Mbps with a co-located Wi-Fi link.  

  • Wi-Fi (IEEE 802.11a-n) and faster Wi-Fi (IEEE 802.11ac) are two of the IEEE 802 local area network (LAN) standards. In general, 802.11 uses 2.4 ISM, 5, 6 and 60 GHz RF bands, employs half-duplex, over-the-air modulation, and uses carrier-sense multiple access with collision avoidance before transmitting data packets. Gaining distance and throughput over the years, 802.11n sent 72-600 Mbps at a range of 70 m indoors and 250 m outdoors beginning in 2009; 802.11ac sent 433-6,933 Mbps at a range of 35 m indoors beginning in 2013; and 802.11ax can move 600-9,608 Mbps at a range of 30 m beginning this year.          

  • ISA100 (ANSI/ISA100.11a and IEC 62734, "Wireless communication network and communication profiles") runs in the 2.4 GHz band; uses listen-before-talk (LBT), clear channel assessment (CCA) technology to ensure coexistence with other unmanaged wireless devices; and directly supports Internet protocol, V.6 (IPv6) as part of its network and transport layers. ISA100 uses the IEEE 802.15.4 standard that typically delivers data at a transfer rates of 250 kbps with a range of about 10 m.

  • WirelessHART (IEEE 802.15.4 and IEC 62591, "Industrial networks—wireless communication network and communication profiles") is a wireless sensor networking technology that uses a time-synchronized, self-organizing, self-healing mesh architecture. WirelessHART also uses IEEE 802.15.4 that provides a 250 kbps data rate at about 10 m, though it can use a point-to-point directional antenna to range as far as 707 m.

  • Long-Range Wide Area Network (LoRaWAN) is a low-power, long-distance, patented, WAN modulation method based on chirp spread-spectrum (CSS) technology. Its LoRa section uses license-free, sub-gigahertz RF bands in some regions and 2.4 GHz worldwide to cover the physical layer at ranges as far as 5 km in urban areas and 15 km or more in rural areas with line-of-sight. LoRaWAN covers the upper layers and can achieve 3-27 kbps data transmission rates.

  • Radio (900 MHz and 2.4 GHz) includes lower-frequency 900 MHz that can range as far as about 500 m and still penetrate multiple obstacles, with data rates that vary from lows of 215-860 kbps to typical rates of 10-15 Mbps, and even reach more than 50 Mbps at short ranges with no interference. Meanwhile, high-frequency 2.4 GHz has a typical range of about 46 m indoors and 92 m outdoors, and will support rates as fast as 450-600 Mbps in optimal conditions, but can still deliver 150 Mbps in obstructed situations.

  • Broadband and ultra-broadband cellular (3G, 4G and 5G) includes broadband 3G that can reach 7.2-14 Mbps at a range as far as 120 km when unobstructed, but drops to 5-8 km in hilly terrain; ultra-broadband 4G that can reach 150 Mbps with a range as far as about 16 km; and Internet protocol (IP)-based 5G that can reportedly reach more than 1 Gbps and possibly as fast as 20 Gbps, but only at a range of about 333 m. 

About the author: Jim Montague
About the Author

Jim Montague | Executive Editor

Jim Montague is executive editor of Control. 

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