Bluetooth: About to change wireless technology forever

Imagine a future where you can drive your car past your bank branch and check your account balance from a console on your dashboard, or you can switch on the air-conditioning system in your home from your mobile phone. In less than a couple of years this could become a reality, thanks to a technology called Bluetooth.

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By  Robin Duff Published  November 20, 2000

Imagine a future where you can drive your car past your bank branch and check your account balance from a console on your dashboard, or you can switch on the air-conditioning system in your home from your mobile phone.

In less than a couple of years this could become a reality, thanks to a technology called Bluetooth. The technology, named after a 10th Century Danish king, will, once operating standards have been approved, revolutionise the way all sorts of electronic and telecommunications devices communicate with each other.

“Bluetooth has grown to the point where there are more than 2000 adopters signed up to the Special Interest Group (SIG),” Shaun Paice, product manager of 3Com's Wireless Work Group Systems division told Futurenet. “It has grown to this level due to a number of factors: it is an open, royalty free specification; it has been driven by a group of internationally influential companies and it will be a very low cost small form factor wireless technology extending its use into a wide range of applications.”

The SIG which Paice mentions include some of the world's most powerful IT companies: Microsoft, Lucent, Intel, Motorola, 3Com, IBM, Nokia, Toshiba and Ericsson. Each company is working to create the products Bluetooth will eventually leverage. In technical terms, Bluetooth is an open standard for short-range digital radio, which is designed to operate in the unlicensed ISM (Industrial, Scientific, Medical applications) band, which is generally available in most parts of the world.

The specification allows several Bluetooth applications to intercommunicate simultaneously, and to overcome external sources of interference such as microwave ovens. The short range referred to above is defined as up to 10 metres in normal operation although greater ranges can be achieved through higher output powers.

The general aim of the promoters of Bluetooth is to enable the intercommunications of just about any piece of apparatus with any other, and consequently one of the main constraints on the design must be cost. When the InfraRed (IR) interface, common on mobile phones and PCs today, was conceived it was appreciated that to persuade equipment manufacturers to implement this interface, the cost of implementation had to be low.

The target cost, set at $5, was achieved and now more than 90% of portable PCs and an increasing number of mobile phones now have an IR interface built in. A sophisticated radio interface is more complicated than the IR interface and therefore more expensive. The price target of $10 per unit however, seems to be realistic, especially if, potentially, all homes have half a dozen or so Bluetooth equipped items operating in them, driving quantities to very high numbers.

“Due to Bluetooth's low-cost, as well as its royalty-free adoption model, it is anticipated that consumers will not experience any increase in product pricing directly associated with the integration of Bluetooth technology,” said Maan Ahmadie, Intel's Bluetooth's administration manager, Middle East.

In addition to cost, size matters. With ever-decreasing form factors and weight, any new addition to a piece of electronic apparatus must be small, light and consume minimum power from the host system or separate battery. The Bluetooth implementation is feasible in a very small footprint, comprising a single chip and associated Radio Frequency (RF) components, and should be relatively easy to install in anticipated applications. Its low output power and sophisticated power conservation design, ensures minimum power consumption.

Bluetooth has the potential for impacting many areas, including many products which would have been inconceivable a few years ago. For example, a fridge freezer telling a microwave oven what ingredients are available, allowing the microwave to suggest menu options.

“With respect to range, the power levels defined in the Bluetooth technology specification are designed to support a variety of usage models, either optimised for usage within a user's “room or home” or “personal” space,” said Ahmadie. “It is up to the device manufacturer to determine what range is required by their application. A Bluetooth-enabled device will have the capability to exchange information within a 10 metre radius, though different devices will support variant ranges based on usage requirements. Scenarios include the Interactive Conference scenario, where users in meetings or conference rooms can share information instantly with al participants, and even a projector, without any wired connections.”

Ahmadie went on to explain that individuals using Bluetooth enabled devices such as laptops, handhelds or phones, could also create an ad-hoc network in a large conference room or small auditorium, to conduct a real-time wireless chat during a meeting or presentation.

“The earliest applications will be realised with mobile phone handsets, PCs, handheld computers and peripherals such as headsets and network access points,” commented Ahmadie. “A Bluetooth-enabled device will be able to actively communicate with seven devices simultaneously. The first release of the specification will define point-to-point connections, with multipoint connections being included with the next release.”

Cellular telephones today are not particularly good at delivering data. Enhancements to existing 2nd generation systems (so called 2.5G) will allow data to be carried more easily and at higher rates (typically between 28.8 kbps and 64 kbps, though higher rates are possible), and where required, as packets rather than circuit switched. The next generation of cellular telephony (3G) known globally as IMT 2000 and in Europe as UMTS (Universal Mobile Telephone System) has been designed to carry packet data, and speech is simply treated as a particular data application.

3G systems will give the end user flexibility in the traffic channel, delivering multiple services with differing bandwidth requirements, simultaneously if needed. Data rates of up to several hundred kbps will be readily available to the terminal. It is expected that the 2.5G developments will be available in the short term, certainly within the same period that Bluetooth will make its debut. General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) is the standard which will expand bandwidth in the Middle East in the near term.

“With the next system which is to be deployed in the UAE, GPRS, you will be able to transfer data over 10 times as fast as with the current GSM system,” said Thomas Magnusson, product marketing manager, wireless and IP, Ericsson. “With EDGE, which is a new code modulation technique, you will be able to transfer up to 384 kbits per second, and finally with UTMS, the maximum bitrate will be up to 2 Mbits per second. All this higher bandwidth will enable new services to your mobile phone, and give the subscriber a mobile link to the Internet fully competitive with fixed Internet access. This will be deployed in the Middle East from now and for the next couple of years.”

With such broad capabilities, it will be tempting to use the 2.5G and 3G systems to support every new application (and many old ones too). Vending machines calling for supply cars sending service requirements to the garage, cordless phones, communicating with personal data assistants (PDAs) wireless LANs (Local Area Networks) - all these applications could be supported directly by 2.5/3G.

Each of the above devices would need to be equipped with an expensive transceiver, and base stations would have to have sufficient capacity to carry the traffic with an appropriate blocking level. However, some of the traffic will be purely local: LANs, PDAs and groups of vending machines, only require intermittent communication beyond the local area. Domestic machines such as televisions, VCRs, PCs and even kitchen machines could usefully intercommunicate, with little or no requirement to access the world beyond the home.

Bluetooth, through its flexibility and ultimately low cost, can provide all the local interconnection, plus a gateway to the national networks when this is required. While there are other solutions already available that could conceivably provide similar local service support, they are less flexible, have specific shortcomings or more expensive than a Bluetooth solution.

“Bluetooth is definitely a good thing for the Middle East for many reasons,” said Ahmadie. “It will enable users to connect to a wide range of computing and telecommunications devices easily and quickly, without the need for cables, expanding communications capabilities for computers, mobile phones and other mobile devices, both in and out of the office. It will deliver opportunities for rapid ad-hoc connections and the opportunity for automatic, ubiquitous connections between devices. It will also virtually eliminate the need for business travellers to purchase or carry numerous proprietary cables by enabling one-to-one and one-to-many connections among PCs, mobile phones and other devices.”

Devices communicating using Bluetooth can transmit and receive up to 1Mbps, though in reality to allow multiple applications to simultaneously communicate, data rates will be somewhat lower than this. Bluetooth devices that are not currently part of a piconet, are constantly "listening" for other Bluetooth devices, and when they are close enough to become part of a piconet, they identify themselves so that other devices can communicate with them if required. An example would be a Bluetooth equipped printer and notebook PC.

When the PC comes into range of the printer, the printer makes itself known to the PC so that if and when the user wishes to print a document, the two devices can immediately begin the data transfer. Meanwhile other PCs will have joined the piconet so that they too can use the printer when required. 3G terminals will provide access to many different forms of information and communication such as Web browsing, e-mail transmission and reception, video (slow scan for video phone type connections, and higher quality for short video clips and still pictures.) and voice, making them true multimedia terminals.

Voice will remain a major form of communication for humans and this is recognised in the Bluetooth specifications by providing specific support for high quality 64 kbps speech channels. With the ability to support packet data as well as speech (and at the same time if required), Bluetooth can provide full local support for these multimedia applications.

Bluetooth transceivers can support multiple data connections and up to three voice connections simultaneously providing the functionality for a three-handset cordless multimedia terminals. A Bluetooth enabled Home Base Station would provide the interconnection for the local Bluetooth equipped terminals and also for telephone “line” (may be a 3G terminal) connection. When an external connection is required only two local handsets can participate in voice connections.

The Home Base Station forms a gateway between the home environment and national networks and services. Any two handsets can connect to each other of course, without the Home Base Station unit, making the whole arrangement very flexible. The following example demonstrates how 3G and Bluetooth could work together, providing local intercommunication as wide area connectivity in wide range of applications. These are not definitive and by no means exhaustive, but aim to show how complementary standards can work together to provide a greater level of service than either could achieve separately.

3G terminals will be able to handle several channels simultaneously (e.g. voice, fax and data each requiring different channel characteristics and speeds). With predictions of terminal penetration being very high (every member of the population above the age of 12 in a few years) the PC itself does not have to be a 3G terminal in order to receive e-mails on the move.

A Bluetooth/ 3G terminal can receive e-mail as a data transmission and forward it, via Bluetooth to the PC. When the reception is complete, the PC can notify the user via Bluetooth and a short message to his mobile terminal that he has e-mail, and if an item is urgent, this fact can be forwarded too. This concept allows the 3G terminal to be the local “headend” for a variety of applications that are locally interconnected via Bluetooth.

Although Bluetooth has, seemingly, industry-wide support, success is still not guaranteed, and possibly the clearest example of this is the amount of energy which is being pumped another similar technology. 802.11B, another radio frequency technology is gaining acceptance with hardware manufacturers, and has already been incorporated into some notebooks and products for the education market. Technically, Bluetooth and 802.11B complement each other, however, how much development effort goes into one and not the other has been raised.

“With Bluetooth right now, there is a lot of hype, but that is about all there is,” said Cahners In-Stat Group analyst, Rebecca Diercks.

The promise of Bluetooth is clearly there, and always has been ever since the idea was first mooted. Using the technology, a notebook does not need a wireless modem or independent wireless Internet account. Instead, data from the portable can be sent by radio to a cell phone, which can then transmit their data. The same applies to handhelds. Toshiba has just begun selling the first option for allowing notebooks to communicate with Bluetooth-enabled devices- but most of these devices won't come to market for months.

“Next year, 2001, is the year of Bluetooth, so in reality it won't be here for a year or two,” said Steven Andler, Toshiba's computer systems vice president of marketing.

Even as the first Bluetooth options hit the market, consumers and businesses will find little to do with them. The first communications devices such as cellular handsets, aren't expected to hit the market before the first quarter of next year, according to Gartner analyst Martin Reynolds.

“Bluetooth will let you connect to your network or cell phone to synchronise your network, but it's not as compelling as 802.11,” he said. “Next year, we're going to see 802.11 get really hot, and then 2002 we'll see Bluetooth really begin to take off,” Eventually, the two standards will live side by side, he added, but indicated that even this will create problems for Bluetooth.

The 802.11B standard is compelling for at least two reasons. As an older, more mature wireless technology, it has moved beyond the start-up problems dogging Bluetooth. And while the newer technology is good for wireless connections to devices within a few feet, 802.11B lets portable devices connect to corporate networks or the Internet over distances as great at 300 feet.

The range of 802.11B could enable employees to move their notebooks from say, the cubicle to the conference room while remaining connected to the company network. Typically, notebooks are outfitted with a PC card antenna that connects over the air to a transceiver, or base station, attached to a corporate network at speeds up to 11 megabits per second (mbps).

Bluetooth has some weaknesses, however. Bluetooth transmitters reportedly cut down portable battery life more than expected, which is a potential hardship for Palm and other handhelds as well as for notebooks. The more serious deterrent is the cost of components used to add Bluetooth capabilities to cellular handsets and other mobile devices.

“The prices have not come down to what people thought they would by this time,” Diercks said. “Primarily what we're seeing is $50 for Bluetooth components, or as little as $25 if you buy them in quantities of thousands or more.”

Even mass market Bluetooth options cost more than anticipated. While Bluetooth PC cards, like the one that Toshiba has just released were expected to go for around $100, they initially will be much more. IBM's card will sell for $189, and Toshiba's is expected to be comparably priced.

While computer and communications manufacturers get to grips with Bluetooth, 802.11B has already established itself.

Apple was the first major PC maker to jump on wireless networking in a significant way. In July 1999, it started by offering wireless 802.11B under the AirPort brand, built into iBook portables. Apple now offers wireless networking on every system it sells.

Other PC makers have got the integrated wireless bug too. Dell are now ready to show off new corporate Latitude notebooks with built in 802.11B antennas. IBM is also moving to integrated wireless networking with its new ThinkPad I series. Not everyone shares the opinion that Bluetooth will be left in its shadows.

“There are always enhancements being done to all of these technologies,” Thomas Magnusson, Ericsson’s wireless and IP product marketing manager told FutureNet. “As an example, IEEE themselves are working on the replacement of 802.11B as well as others such a the Hiperlan 2 technology. You can also expect future improvements in Bluetooth technology.“

“It's a very obvious thing for the OEMs to integrate 802.11,” said Reynolds. He and Toshiba's Andler predict the bulk of PC makers will offer integrated wireless networking sometime next year.

Demand for the technology is booming in every sector, but is strongest in the education, manufacturing, retail and healthcare markets. On the corporate side, Cahners forecasts the wireless networking market will grow to $2.2billion in 2004 from $771 million. Windfall demand is expected among frequent travellers, as airports and hotels add 802.11B wireless base stations, enabling notebooks to connect to the Internet or back to corporate networks.

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