Mesh networking comes to Bluetooth, which could set off a new wave of smart buildings

Now that the Bluetooth standard supports mesh networking, connected buildings like this stadium could really start to take off. (Bluetooth SIG Photo)
Now that the Bluetooth standard supports mesh networking, connected buildings like this stadium could really start to take off. (Bluetooth SIG Photo)

One of the most widely used technologies in mobile computing is getting an important upgrade that could accelerate the development of the smart home and industrial internet.

The Bluetooth Special Interest Group, the Kirkland, Wash.-based group that enforces compatibility among the billions of devices that use the short-range Bluetooth wireless technology, plans to announce Tuesday that the standard now supports mesh networking.

Mesh networks connect a variety of access points and devices across a distributed network, rather than the one-to-one connection that currently exists between your smartphone and that headset that makes you look ridiculous.

This approach dramatically improves the range and reliability of a wireless network, since information can be relayed across several different devices rather than having to stretch between two far-apart devices. And if part of the network goes offline, mesh technology has the capability to route around that outage and still carry out its original mission. Wi-Fi networks have also been getting in on this mesh networking act, which has an additional bonus: mesh networks are much easier to set up than traditional wireless networks.

The new standard builds on Bluetooth 4.0, so most existing smartphones and tablets should be able to recognize devices built for mesh networks and manage them, said Ken Kolderup, vice president of marketing for the Bluetooth SIG, during a press conference Tuesday morning. Theoretically, connected device makers could also take advantage of the new mesh networking technology if they designed their products to accommodate Bluetooth upgrades, he said.

Mesh networking in an office building. (Bluetooth SIG Photo)

Right now, smart building technologies — think connected lights, thermostats, or door locks — tend to use a variety of different wireless networking technologies to connect their networks, which has the effect of locking you into a particular manufacturer’s system. Devices with Bluetooth mesh networking will be subject to stringent testing and validation to ensure they can work with each other, which could encourage a lot more people and businesses to explore connected devices within their homes and offices.

The Internet of Things has been brewing for a long time without a lot of mainstream success, and advances like this make a lot of IoT scenarios much more plausible. Right now, setting up smart lights in your house is a good way to work all but the most patient (or most enthusiastic) into a technology rage, but if connecting your lights was as easy as pairing your smartphone with a portable speaker, more people might take the plunge.

Likewise, some of the earliest IoT implementations have arrived in commercial applications, such as factories, retail stores, or office buildings because of the complexity involved in provisioning and maintaining these networks. The simplicity of Bluetooth should encourage further placement of sensors and edge-networking devices that can beam detailed information around a building as big as a football stadium, as shown at the top of the page.

The beauty of new technologies like Bluetooth mesh networking is that we don’t fully understand all the products that developers might build using this technology (which, of course, is also a potential problem). Device makers and developers intrigued by the technology can check out the specifications for the wireless technology on the Bluetooth SIG’s website.

The first devices using this technology should ship over the next six months, Kolderup said. Member companies of the Bluetooth SIG have been working on mesh networking since late 2014, but it takes a long time for a consortium of 30,000 companies to agree on a standard, he said.

(Editor’s note: This post was updated Tuesday morning with additional comments from the Bluetooth SIG press conference.)