Bluetooth SIG

Last week, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) officially adopted Bluetooth 5 as the latest version of the Bluetooth core specification. I had a chance to interview Steve Hegenderfer, Director of Developer Programs at Bluetooth SIG, to discuss this major milestone and get his take on what Bluetooth’s role is going to be when it comes to the Internet of Things.

CS: Can you please give our readers an overview of Bluetooth 5 and how it will impact the Internet of Things in particular?

SH: With Bluetooth 5, there are really 3 big pieces that have been primarily talked about and a 4th one that to me is interesting as well:

Doubling of the bandwidth – we are changing the way you can do modulation in Bluetooth 5. Same unit of work, same duty cycle, we are changing the modulation to be able to send twice as many signals.

Quadrupling the rage – we focused a lot on forward error correcting, reconstructing data based on “what it thinks you meant”. As the signal to noise ratio gets closer and closer together (as your signal and noise come closer together when the range increases), you end up with garbled packets. To extend range, we’re including forward error correcting to successfully reassemble the packets. We are changing the coding on the package to achieve the extended range, while the power consumption remains the same. Keep in mind though – you will get the 2Mbps at normal range, and more around 250Kbps at the extended range.

Increased advertising broadcast – the least sexy of the enhancements, but the most important one if you’re a developer, 8 times the broadcasting capacity of what we have today. Advertising packets are now 8X thick; we are taking the payload of a bluetooth ad and increasing it to 255 bytes while we are taking up less room in the advertising channel. How? What we are actually doing, which is pretty cool, is offloading the payload to the data channel. In the advertising channel you get the “advertising header”, then you grab the actual payload in the data channel. 37 data channels are now there for us to put advertising data on!

If you think about what is going on today in IoT, especially when looking at how people use IoT, I would argue that the traditional pairing scenario, works out great when you’re doing something like a Personal Area Network (PAN), but the Internet of Things world is a lot more demanding. In IoT we need a lot of devices to communicate with each other, you don’t want to pair/bond all of the devices. Via the advertising packets we are able to send more meaningful data, a lot richer data, encrypted keys that do away with the need for pairing and bonding.

Interoperability in IoT and 5G – what we are doing with 4G and 5G radios, if the bluetooth radio detects that you are using a cellular signal it will essentially avoid channels, similar to Wi-Fi – we try to be good neighbors, enhancing our interoperability with other wireless protocols.

CS: What will Mesh bring to the Internet of Things?

meshSH: Mesh is really were IoT is going to “pop” in this Bluetooth world. Moving from a point to point protocol to a Mesh network topology, you now get an entire blanket of networking coverage without having to have a centralized router, or a backchannel to move data around the network. It’s not going to be used for high-bandwidth things, like video conferencing or video streaming, but if I’ve got a Mesh network of lights in a building, 10 floors high, and need to control these lights, I got coverage for the entire building via the Mesh network. I can extend the network, and range almost infinitely. I can have an umbrella of coverage in an entire plant floor and all these machines can plug into the Mesh network. To me, Mesh is a transformative technology, a game changer for sure! We just reached 0.9 version of the spec, the Bluetooth SIG members can now begin prototyping with it.

CS: Consumer side of IoT vs the commercial side of IoT, the Industrial Internet IIoT – which will be adopting Bluetooth 5 first and why?

SH: Bluetooth 5 will enable a ton of consumer applications. Beacons will definitely have an impact in the commercial side. When you fast forward to Mesh – while definitely a plus in the smart connected home – IIoT is where it will really make an impact. As a device is caching data, once it establishes connection the throughput to send that data is no longer an issue.

In a hospital environment, only 30% of assets use asset tracking. With beacons, in a Mesh network, you can track all your medical devices within that building. The little armbands you receive when checking into the hospital can now be Mesh enabled. Just a small solution example in the medical space. Bluetooth 5 is setting the table, Mesh will take it over the top!

CS: Talking about asset tracking, is Bluetooth phasing out RFID?

SH: I would hope so. You’re talking to a guy working for Bluetooth. Passive RFID is great when it comes to power consumption. But it involves you physically having to scan things. In the traditional RFID world today, you have shipping trucks, shipping containers and massive pallets of freight. You RFID scan, track it, move it to a container, container goes on the ship and the ship delivers where needed. But what if everything is replaced with a beacon? I no longer need to scan, I can see what’s in the container from what is being broadcast. The bluetooth beacon can also broadcast the temperature, if we’re talking about things needing refrigeration. Bluetooth enables a lot more uses cases vs RFID, it shines when it comes to these non-stationary trackable and ready-to-broadcast assets.

CS: Let’s talk about rollout. Bluetooth 5 is out now, do you envision everyone adopting it within 1 month, 3 months, 6 months?

SH: That’s the million dollar question. If it follows other major launches, I expect the same adoption schedule. Chip makers like Qualcomm and Cypress are working on embedding Bluetooth 5 into their offerings, ramping up production and then out to market. There is a lag from a consumer perspective of 6-9 months or so, by the next holiday season you should see plenty of consumer products on Bluetooth 5. On the consumer side it’s a lot easier obviously, as you simply buy the chipsets off the shelf and build what you’re building.

With Mesh, being directly built on Bluetooth 4, if Mesh is released in the spring, consumer products could come to market about the same time as the Bluetooth 5 products. You’d have to update the devices to Mesh, but products on Mesh should be able to come to market the same time as Bluetooth 5 products.