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Cassia nets GE in long-range Bluetooth LPLAN partnership

Cassia Networks has announced a partnership with GE Digital, targeting Industrial IoT (IIoT) applications with its long-range Bluetooth routers – which can achieve ranges of over 300-meters. With GE as a potential sales channel into IIoT customers, Cassia is pushing its routers as an affordable answer to the challenge of connecting devices to the IoT.

CEO Felix Zhao argues that Bluetooth is really well-suited to these sorts of deployments, thanks to its low-cost hardware and two-year battery life. Of course, stock Bluetooth has limitations, but this is where Cassia comes in – with its specialized gateway antenna and noise-filtering software package.

Essentially, Cassia’s routers can transmit power at much higher levels than the edge-devices can, meaning that the routers can hit those hundreds-of-meters ranges. To pick up the transmissions from the much weaker edge devices, Cassia is relying on the antenna to capture the signal, and its software to identify and discern the very faint signals amid the noise.

In these sorts of deployments, Cassia is using a form of Bluetooth routing to manage support for up to 22 simultaneous transmissions and hundreds of connections when in pure listening mode, in deployments spanning hundreds to thousands of devices, and the supporting gateways. Cassia offers its IoT Access Controller to provide the coordination and monitoring capabilities to customers.

Cassia has three types of router – a consumer one called the Z1000 ($149), the indoor enterprise or industrial version called the S1000 ($99), and an outdoor variant called the X1000 ($299) that can be pole-mounted. There are subscription costs for the cloud-based services and Access Controller. Currently, Cassia is using Qualcomm silicon in its routers, but is evaluating other providers.

We asked Zhao about the upcoming Bluetooth Mesh protocol, which will be eventually be part of the Bluetooth 5 standard. Zhao said that mesh was complementary to what Cassia was doing, and that the company would support it, but noted Cassia doesn’t need mesh now to achieve its long-range operations – and that the improvements in Bluetooth 5 are on track to significantly boost the current range of Cassia’s equipment.

Zhao was keen to point out that Bluetooth 5’s claims about increased range and bandwidth are actually a trade-off – in that you can get more range or bandwidth, but not both. On top of that, he said that the current mesh implementation, broadcast-based with not much routing capability, would lead to a lot more traffic on the air – meaning higher power-consumption and more noise in the network.

This brought us onto the topic of Bluetooth as an alternative for the likes of LoRa and Sigfox, which also use unlicensed spectrum to connect IoT devices. Zhao believes that the IoT market hasn’t realized the opportunity of LPLAN, as LPWAN technologies dominate the conversation. He argues that a Bluetooth can be far cheaper, and that Bluetooth’s market and developer presence is of huge importance.

Riot has noted that LoRa makes a lot of sense for a campus-based deployment, where you might have thousands of devices in a geographic area that could be served by just a handful of gateways. Any per-device fee paid to an operator in this example would increase the cost of the total deployment substantially, such that it would incentivize the campus owner to pursue a private network – either built and run in-house, or from a service provider.

This sort of example, in universities, business parks, or industrial facilities, is well-suited to a Bluetooth LPLAN, according to Zhao, who notes that the Bluetooth 5 improvements could extend Cassia’s range to over a kilometer – and that a highway test had managed a 5km link between vehicles using the current Bluetooth standard.

Of course, the LPWAN advocates will say that the longer battery life of their devices and the better signal attenuation means that LPWAN is the superior technology, but the problem with IoT deployments is that no two are the same – and a huge number of variables come into play when it comes to picking the solution to your particular problem.

Bluetooth-based IoT networks clearly have an opportunity here, especially as the build-out of the operator-led LPWAN technologies is taking some time – and we are still a long way from being able to say that a choice of LPWAN provider was commonplace in the market at any given location. There are many areas for both camps to pursue, but Cassia is staking its claim as the leading such provider of long-range Bluetooth.

As for markets, Cassia is targeting the enterprise and industrial sectors. Zhao said that the IIoT was the quickest growing, and that logistics and supply chain were promising too. He said that consumer-facing beacons will be a big opportunity, especially in asset-tracking and location-based services such as retail environments and live shipping updates. Cassia also has European partners that are planning on using its routers in a beacon deployment, but Zhao couldn’t disclose more.

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