A Big Blue Mesh

Bluetooth SIG Announces Mesh Networking

Mesh networking is trending. Home Wi-Fi routers have gone from being intimidating and bulky antenna-clad boxes, to smaller and reasonably attractive pods that can be scattered throughout a home or office. For example, Google, eero and Netgear sell mesh systems that make it easier to push connectivity to every corner of a house and even outdoor environments. This is becoming particularly useful as the need for Wi-Fi grows beyond PCs and spreads to consumer products such as TVs and lightbulbs. In the world of the Internet of things (IoT), everything’s getting connected.

It’s no surprise then that the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) has added mesh networking support to its connectivity specifications. On Tuesday, the group revealed that this capability would become a core part of Bluetooth Low Energy and would be compatible with versions 4.0 and higher. The news is an encouraging development for device makers and for those involved in creating smart homes and offices.

The lack of mesh networking was a clear gap in Bluetooth technology and a weakness in the competitive world of connectivity standards. CCS Insight had previously highlighted this gap and predicted that mesh networks would become a main ingredient of IoT networks in 2017, because it enables easier and ad hoc network expansion (see CCS Insight Predictions for 2017 and Beyond). The Bluetooth SIG had been working on mesh for a long time and cited interoperability testing as one of the main reasons for the development taking longer than people expected.

The group also highlighted that its specification has the ability to support up to 32,000 nodes with “industrial-level performance”. For example, the technology is suited for automation systems in buildings using an array of sensors. It will also be practical in smart homes, enabling products such as a smart lock to piggyback on a series of host devices to give home owners access from an otherwise inaccessible spot in the house.

In light of recent attacks on smart appliances, the wireless standard’s governing body has assured manufacturers of the network’s security capabilities. The group claims that all messages sent across Bluetooth mesh will be encrypted and authenticated using three types of keys.

Bluetooth enjoys some advantages over rival local-area specifications, including a large number of devices using the technology. During 2016, 3.4 billion Bluetooth devices were shipped and 17,000 new products launched. The standard has good economies of scale, a large ecosystem and strong brand recognition with users. We therefore expect it to gain widespread acceptance in consumer IoT over competing technologies such as ZigBee and Z-Wave. And, over time, Bluetooth will be introduced in more products including Wi-Fi routers, as wireless technologies will find the need to coexist.

Nonetheless, there’s also a lot of excitement about the opportunity to move Bluetooth into areas where it hasn’t been relevant before, including industrial systems for smart lighting, buildings, factories and other IoT uses.