Bluetooth 5 adoption as official specification will bring faster, longer-range devices to the smarter home

The Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) recently announced the adoption of their latest specification, Bluetooth 5, which offers greater range, data bandwidth and transfer speeds. This is a win-win for the rapidly-growing Internet of Things and smarter home industries, as it can transform Bluetooth-only devices into more major players instead of being treated more like second-class citizens of this new world of connected devices.

Ever since it began rolling out to personal electronic devices in the early 2000s, Bluetooth® technology has dramatically changed how devices communicate with each other over short distances. While it may have started with simple connectivity between headsets and mobile phones or mobile phones to in-car audio systems, today it has begun to transform the ways home automation and Internet of Things (IoT) devices communicate, too. Apple’s HomeKit technology, for example, can use Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to enable secure connectivity between smarter home devices, mobile devices and the Apple TV (which acts as a HomeKit “hub” for automations.) Bluetooth has the widest install base of any wireless technology (according to Bluetooth SIG) with over ten billion devices equipped with a version of Bluetooth.

Bluetooth 5 is an upgrade to the existing Bluetooth specification, and Bluetooth SIG (the non-profit organization behind Bluetooth) stresses that Bluetooth 5 is not a replacement for Bluetooth 4.2, 4.1 or 4.0 but extends the functionality set that’s already provided by the previous versions of the Bluetooth Core Specification. This also means that some existing devices may be firmware-upgradeable to support Bluetooth 5 instead of manufacturers creating new devices specifically to support the new specifications, although they probably will anyway. Obviously, the devices available today that already support the latest Bluetooth specs could be upgraded with software alone. For example, Agam Shah wrote in PCWorld in September that Texas Instruments’ CC2640 wireless chip will support Bluetooth 5. (T.I. makes chipsets popular with Bluetooth-based device makers.) Also, Bluetooth 5 will be backwards-compatible with previous versions of Bluetooth as well.

Here are a few of the key new features in Bluetooth 5:

  • Longer wireless range: Bluetooth devices can now potentially communicate over distances of up to 400 meters, making devices like wireless speakers a more attractive possibility. Current Bluetooth speakers are limited to realistic distances of 10 to 30 meters, specifically when trying to transmit through and around walls and other obstructions. Bluetooth 5 realistically could have a range of 100-120 meters, when obstructions come into play.
  • Speed: Two times the current data speed of 1 Mbps with Bluetooth 4, which can enable richer content or more complex data to be shared between devices. We’re certainly not talking about Bluetooth delivering 4K video anytime soon, but it’s much better than the current spec.
  • One-to-many capabilitiy: Right now, a Bluetooth device can only “talk” to one other device at a time, even though you can pair a device to multiple devices. With Bluetooth 5, a device can transmit data to multiple other devices at the same time. This could be helpful especially with wearable devices and home automation devices.
  • Better location awareness: With “beacon” technologies already implemented in certain home automation products, the technology for sensing a user’s (or their mobile device’s) location will get better with Bluetooth 5. Higher data transfer speeds will make the “indoor geolocation” process more smooth and responsive. The longer wireless range will enable Bluetooth “mesh networks” of greater size for larger homes where beacon technology may be desired for more “automatic” home automation.
  • Wireless coexistence: With more and more wireless technologies in the smarter home, like ZigBee, Z-Wave, Insteon, Wi-Fi and others, keeping interference to a minimum is a must. Bluetooth 5 includes updates to better coexist with other devices in your home…so your smart toaster doesn’t accidentally prevent you from unlocking your front door in case you start a fire and have to escape burnt toast ;-)
  • Low energy use: Bluetooth 5 will build in all of the enhanced data speeds, wireless range and other new features while maintaining or improving the overall energy efficiency of Bluetooth connectivity. This is another win for IoT and home automation devices, as they can continue to shrink in size and use smaller and smaller batteries, while embedding more useful technology.

Bluetooth SIG has said that they expect to see devices that specifically support Bluetooth 5 within two to six months from this month’s release of the official specification.

Read the official press release here.

Our take on how this affects the Smarter Home:

Bluetooth is already in many home automation products today, but some feel that it isn’t powerful or fast enough, or that the associated issues with wireless range and speed of connections just isn’t worth the trouble. And, it’s true. It can take less time, for example, to dig out one’s keys than it takes for your smartphone to connect up to a smart lock, and then wait for the smart lock to open once you’ve requested it to unlock. With enhanced speed, hopefully not just in the transmission of data but the processing of it at the device level, we should start to see devices that respond quicker and make for a more real-time experience. This also goes for remote battery-operated sensors, which need to refresh their state and data relatively frequently, especially when there is an ‘event’ or change of some sort. A quicker update time can make other devices in the smarter home respond faster, enabling better decision-making by the user.

For the audio world, smart speaker devices, like the Amazon Echo, which can stream audio via Bluetooth, will gain higher-quality playback and fidelity. While perhaps not up to the task of pleasing the ears of a true audiophile, a higher data rate can truly “push the limits” of an onboard sound system’s capabilities. And for the video world, a certain amount of content could be potentially streamed over Bluetooth connections, even though it would be highly compressed. This wasn’t quite feasible until Bluetooth 5, and could possibly enable low-energy control panels that communicate solely via Bluetooth and can also stream media if desired.

Overall, as the Internet of Things and home automation markets continue to rapidly develop, Bluetooth 5 will enable faster and richer experiences with devices that haven’t even been conceived today. And with logical upgrades to today’s existing Bluetooth-based smarter home devices, the experiences will get smoother, with less connection problems, and feel more like an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation instead of today’s somewhat glitchy smarter home environment.