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Evolution of wireless: Marching toward interoperability and simplicity

Arguments have been made that the first compass, created nearly 200 years ago, marks the birth of wireless technology; others say it could have been invented as far back as 206 BC. However, I would argue the real explosion happened in more recent history with Wi-Fi, cellular and short-range wireless. These technologies have led to an entire ecosystem of acronyms, solutions and consumer expectations.

Let’s start with the acronyms. PAN, LAN, WAN — personal area, local area and wide area networks — are just the tip of the iceberg, but they do give us a nice way to classify the wireless space. For this article, we will be zeroing in on the evolution of wireless in PANs. Despite the early compass potentially setting wireless into motion, the widespread adoption of the wireless headset is where the wire-free revolution really started to take off.

Headsets sparked the fire

In 1999, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) released its initial specification, which led to the invention and shipment of the first wireless headset in 2000, a development that rapidly accelerated interest in wireless. It was quickly followed by hundreds of other headset models from a variety of developers, making the Bluetooth headset an iconic piece of technological history.

In the years that followed, the world met much of the wireless technology that we still know and use today — printers, laptops, keyboard and mouse combos, digital cameras, MP3 players, stereo headphones, televisions and speakers. In fact, these types of peripherals still account for billions of device shipments per year.

Today’s overgrown landscape

Wireless technology has advanced a great deal since the creation of these standard peripherals, clearly demonstrated by the millions of new products brought to market since the early 2000s.

However, this flooded product marketplace also brought multiple standards which have often stood as a barrier to streamlined and interoperable technology.

While today’s latest products feature capabilities that are increasingly cutting edge — now equipped for processes like health and wellness monitoring, asset tracking and wayfinding — we still find ourselves stepping on each other’s toes.

Another factor adding to these issues is how rapidly the popularity of wireless products grew within a span of several years. From our smart devices to the factories they are created in, to your home and even your city, we’ve seen wireless technology creep into nearly every aspect of our lives. This steady expansion across environments meant that the need for different network types — such as PAN, LAN, WAN — to work together was paramount.

However, with this shift came new networking players within each network type, as well as countless developers all building for their own unique ecosystem of products. While it’s this type of competition that produced the impressive evolution we’ve seen in wireless, it also led to competing standards and proprietary implementations. Technology operating on different protocols, or those simply built by opposing developers, cannot always communicate with each other, making it difficult for users to piece together personal and commercial wireless networks made up of multiple devices.

Forging a path forward

While inoperability has plagued wireless technology for some time, recent developments in the space have actively increased the versatility of a global, wireless protocol that signals a light at the end of the tunnel. Specifically, the SIG recently released a standard for mesh networking that lies on top of its existing Bluetooth Low Energy and expands the networking potential of Bluetooth from PANs to beyond the range of radio for IIoT and IoT.

Created to build secure and efficient large-scale wireless networks, Bluetooth mesh enables many-to-many communications and is capable of connecting thousands of devices. Bluetooth mesh is optimized for commercial facilities and IIoT use cases, in part because of the need for a reliable, low-cost and low-energy IIoT standard, but also because this market is ideal for testing and continuing to optimize wireless technology.

Mesh not only extends the uses of Bluetooth into commercial and enterprise settings, but it does it in a way that tightly binds the different types of connections that are needed in these spaces instead of separating them. Each type of topology — point-to-point, broadcast and mesh — can work together to form a more powerful protocol. By focusing on the collective power of all these connectivity options in the creation and functionality of mesh, the SIG was able to amplify the global interoperability, reliability and flexibility for which Bluetooth is known.

It’s important to note that wireless connectivity networks are complex, and often there are different technologies that best serve each use case. For instance, LTE is best for connecting smart devices to 4G networks, whereas Wi-Fi is suitable for high-bandwidth IoT devices that can be attached to power at all times.

We will not achieve accessible wireless connectivity in the future through one technology. Instead it will need to be accomplished through a combination of purpose-built, best-in-class solutions that can — and should — work together. In this landscape, Bluetooth is a valuable component in the march towards a fully functioning IoT, especially now that mesh allows both consumers and enterprises to build networks of all sizes using the same protocol that is already installed in most wireless devices.

What’s next?

We find ourselves arriving at an interesting period in the development of wireless — it’s no longer the Wild West, but it’s certainly not a streamlined landscape either. In other words, we are building incredibly advanced technology, but are still facing hurdles when it comes to foundational communications between networks and standards. The question is: Where do we go from here? Bluetooth has been actively involved in creating an interoperable environment, but how can we use this wireless foundation that we’ve built to facilitate the internet of things of the future?

Interoperability has always been critical to the continued evolution of wireless technology. While this doesn’t mean that we must settle on one standard, global wireless technology, it does mean that our existing protocol options need to offer more and work better together so that fewer standards are required for a fully functional network. This one of the central reasons that the SIG performs extensive interoperability testing prior to the release of new Bluetooth specs. With this additional step, the SIG is able to assure higher caliber interoperability from the start.

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