How Disruptive Will Bluetooth Mesh Be?

Even though Bluetooth has been around for less than 20 years, it is only in the last half dozen or so that its adoption has ballooned. Bluetooth’s accelerated adoption rate is attributable largely to the explosion in Bluetooth speakers and headphones, and especially to the growing cornucopia of products and product categories using smartphone-connected Bluetooth Low Energy.

But Bluetooth’s range and data limitations have made it a poor second cousin to Wi-Fi, especially in home and office automation networks.

That’s about to change.

The Bluetooth Special Interest Group’s recently released Bluetooth Mesh v1.0 specification promises to be disruptive-plus.

The newest version will likely first go to work in home networking and IoT applications where its significantly extended radio range, device compatibility and networking capabilities can solve both technical and market problems. Like many technology predecessors before BT Mesh, there will likely be new applications/function development that we are unable to imagine now.

Because the standard will likely debut in the nascent field of IoT, legacy technologies such as ZigBee and Z-Wave, are working on adapting to the new entrant, while even more entrenched players may struggle to adapt quickly enough to stay relevant.

Why do I think BT Mesh will be disruptive? Bluetooth Mesh appears to solve standing problems that plague current similar siloed solutions. It capitalizes on a universal standard with a large installed base and early product development, suggesting it may enable heretofore unknown capabilities.

What Bluetooth Mesh Is and Isn’t

There are three key components that illustrate Bluetooth Mesh’s disruptive potential:

  1. Compatibility. Nearly every Bluetooth 4.0 device, especially smartphones, is upgradable to Mesh, usually via an OS update. While there is some vagueness to precise compatibility (such as the amount of memory available in the Bluetooth chip), reports indicate that up to 96 percent of current smartphones can or will talk Mesh.
  1. Range. Mesh adds the up-to-100-meter range extension of Bluetooth 5.0.
  1. Networking. Every BT Mesh device/node on a network doubles as a repeater, and there can be up to 32,000 nodes on a network.

Like the three components of DNA, these three Mesh ingredients can be mixed and matched to create a nearly endless variety of product and application options in both the consumer and commercial/industrial markets, at which Mesh is being initially aimed.

Now, consider the addition of Bluetooth 5.0 advancements to these three basic Mesh elements. BT 5.0 can handle eight times more data than BT 4.0—up to 255 bytes, which means richer web contact can be transmitted. Sensors also can now broadcast its own information (known as “advertisements”) without a corresponding receiving handshake from, say, a smartphone.

More data more easily delivered has caught the attention of burgeoning Bluetooth beacon business. In a retail environment, for instance, a beacon can now transmit to an individual’s smartphone within the store more complex information such as web site URLs, sale updates or coupons, or other promotional information. BT Mesh also greatly improves Bluetooth range that limits beacon deployment.

Finally, BT mesh provides greater network security, and may help curb the growing number of smart home hack attacks. Mesh includes encryption and authentication at both the network and application layers with AES-CCM using 128-bit keys, and is designed to be resistant against brute force, replay, man-in-the-middle and track-can attacks.

BT Mesh isn’t an A/V medium. As a low-energy specification, BT Mesh is designed to carry device control and status information, not security camera video. Its strengths lie in low-power applications that have nothing to do with moving around entertainment content.

Mesh Advantages

With Bluetooth’s range limitations, smart home systems rely on Wi-Fi for nearly all whole-home functions. But for most basic control operations such as on and off, this is killing a fly with a stealth bomber.

First, BT Mesh is a low-energy spec and Bluetooth is an on-only-when-needed technology, so Mesh devices will draw a fraction of the power compared to continual Wi-Fi connection pinging. This means we’ll see a lot more battery-powered BT devices and sensors with operational lives measured in weeks and months rather than hours.

Second is lag time elimination. Wi-Fi usually needs to communicate with the cloud, which means a tapped or spoken command usually results in a doubt-inducing “did it work?” pregnant pause before activation (or not). BT Mesh commands are carried out nearly as instantly as a physical switch.

Third, because it is an open standard you don’t need a proprietary hub for a smart home system, thus providing competition and, in theory, greater interoperability over what is available with proprietary home networking solutions.

We’ll likely see a plethora of BT Mesh-compatible products and solutions flooding the consumer, commercial and industrial markets in Q4 and at CES 2018. These products and solutions will enable new ways of doing old things and new ways of doing new things, just like any self-respecting disruptive technology.