Bluetooth’s 2016 roadmap: Whole-home coverage, mesh networking, and faster speeds

Next year, Bluetooth gets even more serious about smart homes.

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Bluetooth is redoubling its efforts to connect the light bulbs, door locks, and thermostats of the future.

While the Bluetooth protocol is best-known for connecting wireless mice and keyboards, wearable devices, and cell-phone headsets, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group’s 2016 roadmap is largely focused on connected homes and other applications in the Internet of Things universe.

Most notably, Bluetooth is aiming to increase the range of Bluetooth 4.0+ (aka Bluetooth Smart and Bluetooth Low Energy) by a factor of four. That means a smartwatch or fitness band wouldn’t lose its connection to your phone as you roam around the house. And if you have a motion sensor or lighting system that you’d like to set up outdoors, it wouldn’t need Wi-Fi or another longer-range network connection to stay connected to your hub.

As announced in February, Bluetooth also wants to standardize mesh-networking support next year. This would allow a chain of Bluetooth devices to pass data from one node to the next—like a digital bucket brigade—with the potential to blanket an entire building with coverage. Mesh networking holds promise for smart-home products as well, as it could allow for a decentralized system of devices instead of having to route everything through a single controller hub. The Sonos multi-room audio system is one of the best-known implementations of a mesh network (though it’s is a proprietary solution not based on Bluetooth). 

Beyond those IoT applications, Bluetooth is aiming to double the speed of data transfers without any increase in energy consumption—an important consideration for battery-operated devices such as sensors. While this could benefit consumers, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group says the speed increase will be especially useful for critical applications such as medical devices.

Keep in mind, Bluetooth’s intended plans don’t translate to immediate availability. Even after these features become available, it’ll be a while until device makers adopt them. Bluetooth hasn’t given a timeframe, but odds are we don’t see significant numbers of longer-range, mesh-networked Bluetooth products until late 2016 or early 2017. In the meantime, a small number of companies have introduced Bluetooth LE mesh networks of their own, including Zuli with its Zuli Smart Plugs

Why this matters: Compared to other smart-home protocols—and there are manv—Bluetooth’s advantage has traditionally been its lower power consumption, with limited range being a trade-off. The Bluetooth SIG now seeks to provide the best of both worlds, making it a more capable competitor to the latest efforts from Thread, ZigBee, and Z-Wave. In other words, the war over smart-home standards won’t be settled anytime soon, but the competition will help every alternative stronger.

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