WiFi is a term that is pretty much ubiquitous with all of us at this point - it's probably how the majority of you are even accessing this website!
But if we focus on the smart home, how does WiFi work when it comes to smart home devices? Is there any difference to say, the WiFi we have in our phones and what are the Pros and Cons?
Welcome to the Smart Home Protocols Series, where we are going to be deep diving on protocols that our smart home devices use to communicate in our smart homes and we're going to be starting with WIFI!
How Does WiFi Work?
First of all, you may be wondering - Is the WiFi that exists in our smart home devices different to the WiFi we have in our phones?
Fundamentally, no - they are the exact same thing. A WiFi device will connect to a wireless access point or router using radio frequencies typically on the 2.4 or 5ghz spectrum, whose job it is to route data packets to its intended destination - be that somewhere on the internet - or another device on your local network.
Wireless routers like this can support as little 30 devices at one time, all the way up to hundreds of devices at the same time, each of which is talking and sending data simultaneously that is being delivered and received at its destination in just milliseconds.
Each connected WiFi device will have what’s called an Internet Protocol or IP address: this is an unique identifier for that certain device that allows it to talk to other devices. Without a unique IP address, data would have no way of reaching its intended destination.
WiFi - The Pro's
That is an extremely oversimplified explanation of how WiFi works so what are some of the things that makes WiFi so good for smart home devices in the first place?
The most obvious reason would be convenience, at this point, everyone and their grandma knows what WiFi is at the very least and how to connect a device to their WiFi.
It's something we are all familiar with at a very basic level, and that goes a long way when it comes to adoption!
No Extra Equipment
It is also great because it doesn’t need any extra equipment to get it working, that is, assuming you already have WiFi in your house.
No extra hubs like some other protocols do, meaning your house isn’t going to be littered with tons of extra cheap white plastic boxes all consuming power - you already have everything you need for WiFi devices to work.
Speaking of power, WiFi is also great for speed with its massively superior data transmission rate compared to many other protocols and these days can push more than 1 gigabit per second in comparison to say ZigBee's paltry 250 kilobits per second - this makes it much more suited for a video doorbell or CCTV camera where you need that extra speed.
It Just Works
WiFi is also exceptional for being built on actual true standard - where manufacturers of devices have no choice but to stick to the correct implementation in order for them to actually work.
Think about it, there are millions and millions of WiFi devices out there in the world, all of which need to be able to connect to thousands of different models of wireless router and if a manufacturer tried to tell you that you could only use their device with their router - chances are they probably wouldn’t be in business anymore.
With WiFi, you can be confident that if you buy a smart home device, you will be able to connect that device to your network.
This final one is both pro and con for WiFi - you remember I said that it doesn’t require you to buy any extra hubs for WiFi to work? Well, because of that, that makes WiFi very cheap to get started with, which is obviously great, and it also means that WiFi is internet routable, meaning that devices can talk directly to the internet without the need for any conversion through a hub or router.
Now that’s nice for simplicity - it is super easy to get your devices connected to the internet in a matter of minutes so that you can access them from anywhere in the world, but the flip side of that is that it makes it very easy for devices to be sending a stream of data to servers on the internet without you knowing about it and without knowing what information is being sent and collected about you.
That was quite a few pros for using WiFi, what about the cons?
Honestly, WiFi does have a lot going for it, but it's not all perfect. Remember earlier I mentioned WiFi is great for devices that need lots of speed? Well, that speed comes at a price - power consumption.
WiFi is very heavy when it comes to how much power it draws in comparison to some other protocols, making it unsuitable for anything that you want to run on batteries, unless you want to change them every day or two. Battery sensors are so convenient for lots of reasons - and essential for some others - and this is where WiFi’s biggest downfall is when it comes to the smart home.
Wireless sensors such as motion sensors, contact sensors, temperature sensors, and heck, even these wireless automated curtains just don’t exist with WiFi in them because of how much power they draw. So if you were to try and stay exclusively to using WiFi products only, you would miss out on a ton of potential in your smart home!
Many Devices Can Overload Network
Another con that many of you may not have considered is the impact that loading up your WiFi router can have on your WiFi experience.
Many of the ISP provided and low end wireless routers are simply not designed or capable of having more than, say 30 WiFi devices connected to them at one time, and if you connect lots of low bandwidth WiFi devices to your router, it will actually start to impact the speed of your other high performance devices like phones and laptops because your router is constantly having to manage the connections of these other devices.
Some of you will have high performance wireless networks which is great, but many of you won’t and won’t have realized the impact it can have.
Sometimes it is also nice to just have a separate dedicated network for your smart home devices, for example if you have to reboot your WiFi router or update the firmware, then at least you won’t have to stand there poking them with a stick trying to get them to re-connect!
Should You Use WiFi In Your Smart Home?
What's the final verdict on WiFi? Can we use it in our smart homes or is it better avoided?
Of course not, WiFi is a good protocol to use and makes sense, so long as it is the correct situation.
WiFi is perfectly acceptable for devices that are going to be wired into mains power and need to make use of that higher data speeds, for example in video applications.
It also makes sense if you don’t already have a lot of WiFi devices or you have a strong WiFi network in place.
However, WiFi shouldn’t be used in situations where you want or need to rely on battery power, for example with wireless sensors, where it would make more sense to use another protocol like Bluetooth, Z-Wave or Zigbee.
Speaking of Zigbee, that is going to be the subject of the next article in this series, so make sure to get subscribed so you don’t miss that!
Finally to address the inevitable comments that will crop up saying that hard wiring is better, of course it is, not only for speed, latency and reliability, but we're just talking about WiFi alone here - we will talk about hard wiring in a future article!
Hopefully you enjoyed this first article in the Smart Home Protocols series and it cleared up some of the questions you had around using WiFi in your smart home.