Version 5—2x faster and with 4x extended range-- is due out late this year or early next

Just like Goldilocks, the market for wireless connectivity products knows when something is just right. And when it comes to getting it right, it’s hard to argue against Bluetooth, with more than 8.2 billion Bluetooth-enabled products in use and over 30,000 company members participating in the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG).

Important news about Bluetooth came in the form of an announcement from the SIG last month: we’ll be seeing a new and enhanced capability version of the core spec, to be designated Bluetooth 5 (without a point number, so it is not 5.0, just 5) projected for release in late 2016 to early 2017.

So how does the world’s number one global wireless communication standard stay on top in a market where competitors are quick to develop new ideas?

By getting better, of course. Bluetooth 5 will include significantly increased range, speed and broadcast messaging capacity.

Here’s a snapshot of what the Bluetooth SIG is attempting to do:

Expanded range. Bluetooth 5 will offer four times the range of its predecessors. This extended range means that Bluetooth will now be able to replace WiFi as a communication technology for many IoT applications. Extending range will make full-home, building and outdoor use cases a reality for Bluetooth. In a statement Mark Powell, executive director of the Bluetooth SIG said: “Increasing operation range will enable connections to IoT devices that extend far beyond the walls of a typical home."

Faster Speed. Taxes may be one of the few certainties in life, but here’s another: the explosion of content sharing in social media networking will continue to drive demand for faster connectivity across consumer electronics, personal computing, and mobile internet devices. Bluetooth 5 will feature 2X the transmission speed of Bluetooth version 4.2, thus allowing users to send and receive data much more quickly. This effectively reduces the power consumption by up to half, which, in turn, will increase the time that the device can be used for before recharging.

Bluetooth 5 will boast an 800% increase in data broadcasting capacity. This major boost in broadcast messaging capacity will redefine the way Bluetooth devices transmit information, moving to a scenario that the Bluetooth SIG unfortunately calls a “connectionless” IoT (it’s an unfortunate term because, of course, there must always be a connection of some sort), resulting in less need to download an app or connect the app to another device. Put simply, Bluetooth 5 devices will now be able to receive and interact with location-based services without having to install any additional apps or set up any connection beforehand. The result will be that beacons, location awareness, and similar services in the home automation, enterprise, and industrial markets will become a more relevant part of a seamless IoT experience. According to the market research firm ABI Research more than 371 million Bluetooth enabled beacons are projected to ship by 2020.

Here’s how the Bluetooth SIG described this capability: “In scenarios where contextual awareness like navigation and pin-point location are crucial – such as hassle-free airport navigation experiences, asset tracking of warehouse inventory, emergency response, even smart city infrastructure that helps the visually impaired be more mobile – Bluetooth 5 will send custom information people actually find useful in that moment without connection and application barriers”.

The Bluetooth SIG is claiming Bluetooth 5 will allow IoT devices like smartwatches to move away from the present paired app-device model and operate independently in their own right. That means with Bluetooth 5 you will not always have to do the handshake procedure (pairing) to link to a data source before you are authorized to get the data you want. This may prove to be a two-edged sword as while the Apple Watch and Android Wear-compatible products might benefit from increased autonomy, battery power and screen size on a watch or wearable are both limiting factors, often requiring the help of a paired devices (in most cases a smartphone). Transmitting and receiving data can soak up a lot of the total battery power packed into most wearables and if Bluetooth 5 is to be employed in these situations many products might need a major redesign to function effectively on a stand-alone basis.

In the Bluetooth spec, an "advertising packet" (another unfortunately misleading term) allows Bluetooth devices to send small scraps of information to other Bluetooth devices even if the two aren't actually paired or connected to one another. When you go to pair a Bluetooth keyboard or speaker with one of your devices, advertising packets let you see the name of the device before you've paired it so you can distinguish it from other Bluetooth devices within range. The same technology is used by wireless beacons to transmit information about the location you're in (and it’s not unlike what happens with both Apple's AirDrop, which enables the transfer of files among supported Macintosh computers and iOS devices without using mail or a mass storage device and Apple Handoff, which, when your Mac computers and iOS devices are within Bluetooth range of each other [about 33 feet or 10 meters], they can automatically “hand off” what you’re doing from one device to another).

Current “advertising packets” are 47 bytes in size, of which 31 are available for data. Perhaps to unintentionally reinforce the belief many have that Bluetooth still is not as predictable as, say, a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder, we don't yet know how large Bluetooth 5 packets will be.

Because of its upgrades Bluetooth 5 effectively removes the need to use power-hungry WiFi to control smart home devices, and makes the more efficient BLE a better choice because, in addition to reduced infrastructure costs (no access points or routers required), Bluetooth tends to be easier on battery life than WiFi.

Bluetooth 5 continues a trend toward lower energy wireless communications. Earlier this year the Bluetooth SIG released its Transport Discovery Service (TDS) spec. TDS lets Bluetooth discover and initiate connections with any other available wireless link--even WiFi or WiGig. The aim of TDS is to let users turn off higher power links such as LTE or WiFi until they need their bandwidth. TDS provides the wireless industry with a common framework for devices to discover and connect – no matter what wireless technologies they are using. It solves a critical issue for the Internet of Things (IoT) by making it possible for devices to remain available while consuming minimal power.

We can probably expect Bluetooth 5 laptops, tablets and phones to start appearing at some point next year (which means semi suppliers are designing components now). Accessories will take longer as even high-end wireless headphones tend to still be using Bluetooth v.2.1

Murray Slovick

Murray Slovick

Murray Slovick is Editorial Director of Intelligent TechContent, an editorial services company that produces technical articles, white papers and social media posts for clients in the semiconductor/electronic design industry. Trained as an engineer, he has more than 20 years of experience as chief editor of award-winning publications covering various aspects of consumer electronics and semiconductor technology. He previously was Editorial Director at Hearst Business Media where he was responsible for the online and print content of Electronic Products, among other properties in the U.S. and China. He has also served as Executive Editor at CMP’s eeProductCenter and spent a decade as editor-in-chief of the IEEE flagship publication Spectrum.

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