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20 June 2016

Bluetooth 5.0 on the horizon, but still playing catch-up in mesh

The Bluetooth SIG says it will announce Bluetooth 5.0 this week, with promises of twice the speed and four times the range for its low power profiles, and an eightfold improvement in its broadcast messaging capacity.

Also in the works is the launch of its mesh networking implementation, which would finally see the SIG provide a protocol that is ideal for IoT developers – now becoming urgent in the wake of the announcement of JupiterMesh by the rival ZigBee community last week.

ZigBee, and the fellow 802.15.4-based protocol Thread, are mesh-enabled, and JupiterMesh has pushed ZigBee a step ahead of the pack. By contrast, while there are vendor-specific implementations of Bluetooth mesh, notably from Qualcomm/CSR (which has fed heavily into the standard too), the official standard has been slow in coming.

While, the fourfold range improvement for low energy transmissions using Bluetooth makes obvious sense for the IoT, the addition of mesh would greatly extend the range of a Bluetooth device, in dense deployments like the smart home, but would also work to significantly extend the battery lives of those IoT end-points. The SIG stresses that Bluetooth Mesh is not dependent on v5.0 – it is a separate endeavor, which will be backwards compatible with 4.0.

The latest Bluetooth iteration is expected to make it to market towards the end of this year, or early next year. The broadcast messaging function aims to provide a ‘connectionless IoT’, where a Bluetooth device doesn’t need to be paired with another device in order to speak to it (similar to how Bluetooth beacons work). This means a significant boost to beacon vendors and adopters.

Despite its mesh shortcomings, Bluetooth is leagues ahead of protocols like Z-Wave,  ZigBee or Thread in terms of its deployment footprint. Because of its presence in all smartphones of recent years, and the vast majority of all phones sold in the past decade, it already has great brand familiarity and an expansive ecosystem of accessories that accompany these handsets.

Consequently, smart home devices and wearables can be viewed by these consumers as mere extensions of the existing ecosystem – an evolution of the familiar means of extending a smartphone’s functionality. That’s a very strong route to market, that doesn’t require introducing consumers to new brands and protocols. And with the new claims of improved range and speed, the marketers can go to town on plastering these new products with the new capabilities.

IoT devices typically don’t need more bandwidth than what Bluetooth can provide – with most devices’ requiring kilobytes per hour rather than megabytes per second. In a fully kitted-out smart home, only the things like security cameras and on-demand video applications (like doorbells) will need the speeds afforded by WiFi. For nearly everything else, Bluetooth will do fine – as long as the battery life of the device isn’t compromised.

But power consumption will always remain a prime concern for developers of battery-powered devices, particularly if those devices are part of a new wave of wireless sensors that require a decade-long battery life. For those types of applications, Bluetooth may never be an option, while something like ZigBee, due to its mesh networking capabilities, could provide the longevity needed – with the trade-off being a lack of interoperability with smartphones (except some Samsung Galaxy models).

However, most consumers would be happy with such a set-up. After all, they would wish to interrogate the central home HVAC system, not the end-point sensors themselves. Similarly, the stakeholders in such an ecosystem, the HVAC manufacturers or utilities looking to install these appliances, won’t necessarily want to tightly integrate their devices with such an expansive consumer ecosystem, and will want to stick with the best technology for their applications – which may well not be Bluetooth.

But something that lurks on the horizon is the advent of long range wireless charging technology, like Ossia’s Cota, which could completely remove the need to focus on low power consumption at the silicon level, as a home hub device could deliver all the top-up power needed.

If such a technology can be commercialized, as Ossia is in its early days still, then there’s a huge market opportunity for the alliance that pushes such a wireless technology to the fore. The obvious benefit of keeping a smartphone topped up has a definite value to consumers, but putting such a technology in the smart home enables the types of IoT functions and services that make the marketers salivate – and the ones that might finally change the consumer perception of the smart home.