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Bluetooth Technology 101

The Future Of Bluetooth

The phenomenal commercial success of Bluetooth means that neither the standard nor its inherent problems are going anywhere. Vendors will introduce support for a wider range of device classes, especially ones that feature Bluetooth 4.1 Low Energy, designed for the Internet of Things. Bluetooth 4.2 was released in 2014—Apple, Samsung, TI and everyone else is already using this latest iteration that allows for better privacy, speed and IPv6. From the vendor side, expect to see better power management, faster data rates and the possibility of a more advanced modulation schemes in high-end devices.

In terms of the standard itself, there are a number of challenges looming on the horizon for Bluetooth. Congestion in the 2.4GHz band is getting worse. Some of the interference is mitigated by Bluetooth’s adaptive frequency hopping capabilities, and Wi-Fi growth is mostly happening in the 5GHz band. But there should be more emphasis on cooperative interference mitigation strategies in the future. The responsibility (or framework required) to implement such strategies is currently in the vendors’ court, but we hope that eventually the standard will present some recommendations on how to standardize those approaches.

We interviewed Mark Powell, executive director of the SIG, and he believes that Bluetooth is the key to tying together the changes we're going to be seeing in wireless communications. Bluetooth is evolving and building up the strength of its low-energy modes—in February 2016, the SIG announced a new architecture and toolkit to enable “smart” Bluetooth functionality where IoT devices are connected over an Internet gateway. Then, in March 2016, the Bluetooth SIG announced the addition of a Transport Discovery Service (TDS), which provides a common framework for low-energy IoT devices.

Older data exchange applications for Bluetooth are coming under pressure from faster technologies like WiGig. But the SIG envisions Bluetooth as a key enabling technology for such applications. Under a cooperative scenario, Bluetooth could be used to page devices capable of WiGig and other high data-rate technologies, perhaps even controlling the wake/sleep state of those power-hungry radios and establish connections. The low power consumption and ubiquity of Bluetooth makes it ideal for enabling such an adaptive “only when needed” operation scenario for data transfer.

The growth of Bluetooth-enabled devices is accelerating, and 2016 promises another iteration of the specification. By lowering the modulation rate of the Bluetooth signal (and therefore its sensitivity to noise), the standard will improve the data rate and range of Class 2 and Class 3 devices. And, for the first time, we expect to see a large number of new network topologies—for instance, mesh networks and decentralized host-to-host networks directly accessing the WAN. This could lead to a complete shift in the kinds of applications, profiles and capabilities that Bluetooth addresses.

The Internet of Things is at the core of this paradigm shift—Bluetooth-equipped light bulbs, Bluetooth door locks, devices acting as relays without a “master”—devices capable of networked operation will hit the market in droves, and soon. Perhaps foreseeing the problem of Bluetooth devices without any capability for input (how do you enter a PIN into a light bulb?), the SIG’s newly released architecture and Bluetooth gateway services will enable the setup and control of these networks over the internet.

We anticipate smart-bulbs and smart appliances, and perhaps smartphone and Web-based apps for control, similar to the capabilities of smart Wi-Fi router apps. This does mean that, in certain cases, Bluetooth’s greatest security strength, the fact that attacks need to come from a physically proximal source, will be negated by direct access of Bluetooth-enabled devices to the Internet. The specification requires 128-bit AES encryption, but the responsibility for dealing with more involved security scenarios is probably going to remain at the application layer, and firmly on the shoulders of device vendors.

Bluetooth mesh network for low-power devices, courtesy of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group

Still, we believe that the most exciting developments in Bluetooth will come from the new network topologies. Mesh networking...mesh networking for everything! New topologies open up a vast array of possibilities for information sharing, research and data transport protocols. With a 400% increase in the range of Bluetooth Smart, and a 2.5x increase in data transfer speeds, with battery demands met by button cell batteries, 2016 and 2017 hold the possibility for new classes of end-products we have never seen before.

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Gene Fabron is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware. Follow her on TwitterFollow us on FacebookGoogle+, RSS, Twitter and YouTube.

Gene Fabron is an Associate Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware US. He writes reference material across a range of components.