Using Cellular Data for the Internet of Things?

Will cellular, LoRa, or Sigfox win out in the end?

Alasdair Allan
5 min readAug 12, 2017

Just as the way we’re using computers is changing, the way we build hardware is changing with it. The response from many manufacturers has been panic, the result, what I’ve been calling “kitchen sink” boards.

While there are use cases where a board might need both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios, or Wi-Fi and cellular, it’s rare to need all three. Despite that a typical kitchen sink board comes with multiple radios—I’ve seen boards supporting up to five different radios—and they also come with more CPU and RAM than most embedded devices will ever need to do their jobs. That’s bad, because hardware is expensive.

The Pycom FiPy which supports Sigfox, LoRa, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth LE, and cellular. (📷: Pycom)

So it’s likely that as the battle for the hearts and minds of the developers calms down manufacturers will go back to making boards with just one, or perhaps two, radios onboard. However, while Bluetooth LE and Wi-Fi have won their respective battles for the short and medium range spectrum, the standard that will eventually win out over longer ranges is still unclear.

Right now there are three obvious competitors that might win out over longer ranges; LoRa, Sigfox, and of course traditional cellular.

With the rollout of Sigfox in the United States being patchy at best—despite heavy investment by the company—and cellular traditionally being far too expensive, of the three, LoRa has become the firm favourite of the developer community.

Johan Stokking talking at ThingMonk in 2016 about “The Things Network.” (📹: RedMonk)

The Things Network is an independent community led LoRa-based network organisation reminiscent of FidoNet—for those of you old enough to remember the last time global networking was in its infancy—with the aim to crowdsource a global open, and independent, Internet Of Things network using LoRa hardware. They got their start on Kickstarter last year, and have grown rapidly ever since.

All that time the cellular operators have been hamstrung by their pricing models, and the reliance by most developers on cheap 2G hardware that is quickly becoming obsolete as 2G network are being turned off around the world. Although the ever practical Europeans might well turn off their 3G networks before the 2G network, due to this problem, and the large number of machine-to-machine (M2M) traffic on the legacy networks.

However cellular providers are fighting back, and the one familiar to most makers will be Particle. While most makers won’t think of them that way Particle are an Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) with a global SIM card and data plan optimised for the Internet of Things.

Their Photon board, with onboard Wi-Fi, and Electron board, with an onboard 2G/3G cellular modem, integrates into their cloud platform pretty much transparently, so you can choose to use either their Wi-Fi or cellular boards depending on your needs, and the code on the board will look much the same.

The Particle Electron (2G/3G) cellular connected micro-controller board. (📷: Particle)

However while Particle might have been first, and have heavily invested in their developer community, they aren’t on their own. They were recently joined by Hologram, who started out under a different name on Kickstarter, and launched their own developer program at the start of the month.

The Global SIM Card with Hologram Dash module. (📷: Hologram)

Hologram’s new developer plan comes with 1MB of free data per month, with each additional MB of data costing $0.60. Comparing this to Particle’s Basic Data plan which costs $2.99 for the first MB of data, and $0.99 for each additional MB, that’s an enticing price point. Especially for makers who may well never exceed the 1MB per month data limit.

“The per MB cost for data us low for cell phone plans, but high for the Internet of Things. That will fall with time, we’re trying to drive that forward by charging by the kB. You don’t have to be afraid of cellular, the interesting thing about it is that it gives you the ability to connect things to the Internet ubiquitously. That’s not possible if you don’t have cellular.” Ben Forgan, Founder & CEO, Hologram

The Hologram SIM also supports 2G, 3G, and 4G out of the box, while the Particle SIM only supports 2G and 3G. However, while Hologram has lower cost per-MB cost it doesn’t have the same developer community—at least not yet—and if you have an actual need for 4G then the free 1MB of data will quickly be eaten up in any case.

“LoRa is not a substitute for cellular. It is low-cost and low-bandwidth but sacrifices robustness.” Ben Forgan, Founder & CEO, Hologram

While the operators might argue that LoRa is no substitute for traditional cellular, others aren’t so sure. As well as the community-led Things Network who are pursing global coverage, there’s already a country-wide LoRa network in the Netherlands, and two more countrywide networks are in the process of being rolled out in Latvia and Estonia.

However despite that, the new Hologram developer plan may well tempt a lot of makers to explore cellular connectivity for the Internet of Things. Free, after all, has a quality all of its own.

You can pick up a Hologram Global SIM Card on their Developer Plan, which includes up to 1MB of data per month, for free. Normally your free SIM card would actually set you back $7.50 for shipping, but if you enter the promo code HACKSTERFREESHIP at checkout then you should—at least for the next month or so—get free shipping making your free SIM card actually free.