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13 November 2015

Bluetooth previews key new features to fend off Thread

To keep up with the snowballing demands of the IoT, the various wireless personal area network (WPAN) standards are having to evolve rapidly. Established platforms like Bluetooth, and new challengers like Thread, need to remain relevant to consumer and service provider requirements, and also to outdo one another to secure the scale and reach that are any standard’s lifeblood.

The Bluetooth SIG, which defines the specifications, is previewing upcoming features which will be included in its low power strand, Bluetooth LE (BLE) next year. These will increase the range, speed and meshing capabilities of the standard and make it more competitive against Thread and ZigBee, the other two main challengers for the smart home network (and beyond, in the case of BLE and ZigBee).

The enhancements will quadruple the range of BLE in order to support a wider range of smart home and infrastructure scenarios including more robust links around the whole home, or for indoor/outdoor use. Speed will double without any increase in power consumption, says the SIG, to increase responsiveness and lower latency, especially relevant to QoS-critical applications like medical monitoring. And meshing – a key advantage touted by Thread – will help expand coverage.

“There is significant demand from our members and the industry at large to enhance Bluetooth with the new capabilities we’re announcing today,” said Toby Nixon, chairman of the Bluetooth SIG board of directors, in a statement. “Current projections put the market potential for IoT between $2 and $11.1 trillion by 2025. The technical updates planned for Bluetooth technology in 2016 will help make these expectations a reality and accelerate growth in IoT.”

Bluetooth SIG member tools, like the recently launched Bluetooth Developer Studio, and training programs will be updated to ensure strong developer support for these new IoT features. Additional features and profile updates contained in the 2016 roadmap will be previewed in the coming months.

The mesh features, in particular, lack detail so far, but it is important to the Bluetooth community that they are at least discussed at this early stage, because the Thread group, lead by Google’s Nest smart home subsidiary, has placed these capabilities at the heart of its challenge to BLE. In July, Thread released its mesh protocol, and also added Qualcomm to its board – significant, considering the chip giant now owns CSR, the leading developer of Bluetooth mesh. It leads the SIG’s workgroup in this area, and its CSRmesh technology, which is already commercially available but proprietary, is expected to provide a major part of the new BLE mesh standards.

In August, Qualcomm/CSR expanded CSRmesh’s capabilities from its initial smart lighting use case into sensor and actuator functionality, which can support many other applications in home control. At the same time, it hinted that it might, in future, enable Thread protocols to run over Bluetooth radios, a step that would help ensure that both specs could thrive, coexisting rather than being an either/or in the smart home. Previous standards battles – like the ongoing one between WiGig and other 60 GHz wireless technologies – have shown that the vendors of home equipment are hostile to supporting more than one type of connectivity, for cost reasons.

Anthony Murray, formerly an SVP at CSR and now Qualcomm’s general manager of IoE (internet of everything), told Fortune magazine: “So far the Thread protocol has chosen to support one radio, but there are many of radios out there that it could support and there are advantages in using the Bluetooth radio in some use cases. We can’t not support Thread given the strength of the supporters behind it.”

For now, however, Thread’s goal appears unchanged from its launch last year – to woo the ZigBee community but to remain a challenger to Bluetooth. Thread runs on 802.15.4 radios, as does ZigBee, but is an implementation of the IPv6-enabled 6LoWPAN protocol. This was initially developed by Nest and then placed into open source as the basis of the would-be Thread standard, whose initial backers included ARM and Samsung. ARM recently announced Thread support in its mBed OS software platform for microcontrollers.

The common physical layer makes it logical that Thread and ZigBee could converge, if the former gains sufficient traction to threaten the older standard in its key target market, the home. The differences with BLE are clearly wider, and one of the most significant has been mesh. Initially, Bluetooth SIG members played down the need for mesh, claiming this approach adds single point of failure.

But it did form a working group for this technology in February. Many community members were disappointed that none of these features appeared in the latest BLE release, in June, which helps explain the early preview of 2016’s upgrade.