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Forget headphones: Bluetooth Mesh may connect entire buildings

Bluetooth's next act is all about creating supernetworks of smart devices.

We already use Bluetooth for short-range devices such as playing music from your phone on a speaker.
Sarah Tew/CNET

You know Bluetooth as the wireless tech that connects headphones, keyboards, fitness trackers, car stereos and game controllers over short distances -- often, no more than 33 feet away.  

So what if I told you that up to 32,000 Bluetooth devices will soon be able spread out across an entire building, or even a neighborhood, to form a single wireless network? That's what the consortium behind Bluetooth formally announced Tuesday.

It's called Bluetooth Mesh and it's not here to replace your Wi-Fi -- it operates at a comparatively sluggish 1Mbps.

Instead, imagine a scenario where every light bulb in a building is a smart bulb, with a Bluetooth Mesh radio. With a switch, or a command from your phone, you'd be able to turn on or off any light, no matter how far away it might be -- because each bulb communicates with each other bulb, passing along your commands in little short hops.

Now take it a step further, and add standard Bluetooth devices such as your Fitbit or your phone. (Bluetooth Mesh devices will be able to speak standard Bluetooth, too.) Imagine the lights in your workplace automatically turning on and off when you enter your office, based on the phone in your pocket.

Take it yet a step further, and imagine a hospital that upgrades its lighting mesh network with location services to know where all its people and things are. Imagine pressing a button to see where a gurney, a crash cart or a patient is located, and seeing the closest Bluetooth node light up.


A Bluetooth-networked hospital, perhaps.

Bluetooth SIG

That's the vision, according to Ken Kolderup, VP of marketing for the Bluetooth SIG (Special Interest Group), the consortium of tech companies that defines the Bluetooth standard. (He imagines the tech could help visitors navigate such a hospital, too.)

Kolderup tells CNET that while Bluetooth Mesh could definitely have smart home applications, the first customers will likely be big industrial environments and green buildings making big investments in smart lighting.

But those lights might just be the beginning. Once a given building has installed a building-wide network's worth of smart lights, other distributed services could piggyback on that same Bluetooth network. "They want to outfit sensors all over this equipment to do vibration, temperature and humidity sensing to do preventative maintenance on equipment and asset tracking," says Kolderup. 

Philips Hue wireless bulbs use ZigBee, a rival mesh networking protocol.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

In other words, smart bulbs could be a gateway drug.

Of course, Bluetooth isn't the only mesh networking protocol that can do some of these things. Most notably, there's the popular ZigBee standard used by many smart home devices (such as the Philips Hue bulbs). But ZigBee isn't a universal standard like Bluetooth, which ships in every phone, tablet and most laptops today.

The idea is that maybe you won't even need a smart home hub to configure and control a Bluetooth mesh network, since your phone or other standard Bluetooth device could do that job.

But ditching hubs entirely might not be practical anytime soon, argues Lee Ratliff, principal connectivity analyst for IHS Markit. "If you want that light to turn on when you're not at home, you need something to turn on that light that speaks Bluetooth and connects to the internet." Ratliff says he expects wireless router manufacturers to eventually integrate Bluetooth, but that hubs are likely in the short term.

He also doesn't see Bluetooth killing off ZigBee anytime soon: "I think they'll live side by side for quite a while." He says that Philips, maker of the popular Hue smart bulbs, has told him they're committed to ZigBee for the long term.

Still, Philips Lighting just put its chief of wireless networking on the Bluetooth SIG's board of directors last week. Perhaps they're hedging that bet.

Kolderup says we should expect the first Bluetooth Mesh devices in commercial and industrial settings as soon as this year.   

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