Wireless cameras are an invaluable tool for many farmers, ranchers, hunters, and game managers, enabling users to improve security, monitor assets, and document wildlife remotely. Unfortunately, most places you would like to have a camera do not have power or a wired data connection, especially in agriculture and wildlife monitoring. As a result, the wireless camera market has emerged with a growing variety of cameras and applications. This article will attempt to alleviate much of the confusion that comes with the term “wireless cameras”, as well as discuss different types of cameras and use cases.
Wireless Camera Types
“Wireless camera” is a broad term adopted by the media and marketers that means any type of camera that does not have a wired connection. The wireless cameras can be broken down into three main categories: closed-circuit television (CCTV), WiFi (wireless internet), and cellular.
Closed-circuit television cameras were the original wireless cameras. CCTV cameras stream videos and images directly to a receiver, without the need for an internet connection. The receiver typically consists of an antenna, recorder, and display, but system specifics vary widely. CCTV’s are great for streaming high-definition video, making them a solid choice for localized security applications due to having independent wireless signal and the quality of the video CCTV cameras transmit. The range of CCTV systems varies widely and depends on many variables such as radio frequency, transmission power, antenna size, obstacles, and terrain. Most systems are in the range of 100 feet up to about ½ mile.
Pros: high-quality video and live streaming, security of signal, no data costs (unless the receiver uploads video and images to the internet)
Cons: most expensive upfront costs, most complex installation, requires power (for the receiver), and most CCTV systems must be monitored locally (some receivers push video over the internet)
WiFi cameras connect to the internet through a wireless internet router. WiFi cameras are sometimes called “IP” cameras, but, technically, IP cameras are “Internet Protocol” cameras that can either be wired or wireless. Our discussion will focus on the wireless version of IP, or “WiFi”. WiFi cameras are best for small area applications, as the cameras typically need to be within about 100’ of the WiFi router. WiFi cameras are mainly used for home security, baby monitors, doorbell cameras, and office security. Setup of WiFi cameras is fairly straight-forward, but it will require logging into the camera to manage WiFi settings and passwords. This process has been made pretty simple by modern WiFi cameras such as Google’s Nest Cam, Ring’s cameras, and Netgear’s Arlo Cameras.
Pros: cost, ability to monitor the cameras from anywhere, fairly easy to install
Cons: limited range, requires internet, and requires power (for the WiFi router)
Cellular-connected cameras have emerged in the last few years due to the falling costs of cellular data. Cellular cameras initially received the warmest reception from hunters, allowing them to receive real-time images from their trail cameras and game cameras. However, the falling cost of cellular data is opening up other remote monitoring and security applications for cellular cameras. Cellular cameras typically only transmit images or short video clips to reduce data costs. Cellular cameras require a cellular network signal and a SIM card to access the cellular network. While cellular cameras can be the simplest setup, purchasing a SIM card, finding the right data plan, and managing the SIM card settings can be confusing and frustrating.
Pros: unlimited range (assuming the camera has cellular signal), simple setup for pre-configured cameras, motion activated photos and video
Cons: requires cellular signal, SIM card management can be a hassle if doing it yourself, no live streaming of video
Cost and capability varies widely, particularly with CCTV systems. Most WiFi cameras are in the range of $50 to $300, with most of the popular cameras costing $199. For CCTV systems, low-end cameras cost about $100 and high-end cameras cost as much as $3,500. A decently capable CCTV system with four cameras will cost around $750 to $1000.
At this point, most cellular cameras are trail cameras, and the price range is $250 to $600, not including data plans. Data plans depend on the specific carrier and data needs. For most hunters, data plans costing $10 to $20 per month are sufficient. Security applications may need more data, with plans costing from $20 up to $100 per month. Of note, most cellular carriers require a three or twelve-month contract.
If you are interested in purchasing a consumer friendly WiFi camera system for the home or office, please see reviews from a couple of our favorite sites:
CCTV systems are a bit more complex and varied, but, if you are interested in CCTV, then check out these articles and providers:
At Barn Owl, we specialize in cellular cameras. The remainder of this article will discuss considerations for cellular cameras, cellular networks, and our take on the future of cellular cameras.
Cellular Camera Details
As previously noted, the vast majority of cellular cameras are trail cameras used by hunters (not including smartphones). A few high-end cellular cameras do exist for security and construction site monitoring. If you are looking for a high-quality camera for security or construction site monitoring, we recommend checking out the cameras by Colorado-based Sensera Systems. Sensera’s cameras, service, and images are all of high quality. Unfortunately, both the price of the cameras and the cost of the large data plans they require are above the price range for most users.
While the cost of cellular data has come down significantly and continues to fall, users must decide if they are willing to pay the high data costs for higher quality images or settle for lower resolution images, which use significantly less data. At Barn Owl, we believe the “low” resolution images are the best choice for most monitoring applications. Cameras that transmit lower resolution images typically store higher resolution images on the camera’s memory card (our cameras at Barn Owl do this), enabling users to reduce data costs but still have access to high-resolution images if needed. Transmitting images at lower resolution results in significantly lower data costs, more reliable transmissions, and longer battery life. Most cameras utilize a JPEG file format, which compresses the image file to reduce data use further but may give some pictures a grainy look. Cameras transmit different sizes of “low” resolution images, but 640x480 pixels, known as VGA, is a common size. While it’s up to the individual user what resolution is required, most of our customers agree that 640x480 is good enough for most applications, particularly if the desired object is within about 50 feet.
As noted, cellular cameras have first taken a foothold in the trail camera market. Hunters need cameras that are durable, easy to mount, have motion activation, and are capable of night images. When motion activated, most trail cameras can take a single photo, a series of photos, or a short video clip. Receiving the images wirelessly prevents hunters from needing to manually check the cameras, which reduces pressure on the game and helps game managers more accurately forecast their true wildlife population. Additionally, most trail cameras are capable of taking time-lapse images, which is helpful when monitoring fixed assets.
The qualities that make a game camera good for hunting also make them capable security and general monitoring cameras. Fortunately, the development of cameras for the hunting market and the falling cost of data has made cellular trail cameras an economical choice for many applications. The use cases for trail cameras for farmers, ranchers and wildlife managers are vast and varied. Monitoring applications include water tanks, feed troughs, irrigation, fertilizer tanks, center pivots, and more. The trail cameras are capable of providing security for valuable assets and buildings such as remote cabins, fuel tanks, center pivots (to prevent copper theft), and construction sites.
Cellular Coverage Growth
Since camera costs and data costs are no longer significant barriers, the biggest issue with cellular cameras is the obvious requirement to have a cellular signal. Unfortunately, for many agricultural and wildlife areas, cellular coverage is not always available.
Fortunately, the cellular carriers continue to improve coverage. Currently, AT&T and Verizon have the best overall coverage. However, T-Mobile is rapidly expanding and has goals of surpassing AT&T and Verizon within two years. In fact, T-Mobile spent 8 billion dollars this year on low-frequency spectrum, which has better range than existing cellular frequencies, enabling them to provide coverage nation-wide. T-Mobile is expected to provide near nation-wide coverage within 18 months. View T-Mobile’s coverage map and select “LTE-6” (LTE-6 represents the 600MHz spectrum they purchased) to see the expanded coverage.
Much of the low-frequency spectrum came from bandwidth that used to be dedicated to television. While growing up on ranches in Wyoming and Nebraska, I can remember always being able to receive TV. Ok, maybe the TV had tin foil on the rabbit ears, and the picture had some squiggly lines. You get my point--TV stations have signal almost everywhere. At Barn Owl, we’re optimistic about the potential for cellular carriers to expand their network to cover a vast majority of the US. Even if cell service doesn't completely cover your property, using cameras where service is available can significantly reduce the overall burden of manually monitoring assets.
Advocacy for Cellular Coverage in Rural Areas
At Barn Owl, we believe cellular service is important in helping to improve the safety, security, and productivity of rural Americans, and we are serving as advocates to improve cellular coverage in agricultural areas. We seek to amplify demand for cellular service by highlighting use cases and case studies that go beyond just phone calls and text messages. By magnifying local demand, we can leverage basic economics to bolster the argument for better cell service.
See our Cell Service Advocacy page to learn more about efforts to enhance cellular service.
Quick note: We are accepting pre-orders for our cellular cameras. The first 100 customers will receive 3-months of free service.