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IoT battle of the titans: Bluetooth 5 vs. Wi-Fi HaLow

The overlap between Bluetooth 5 and Wi-Fi HaLow is growing as the IoT market gains traction and looks for capable wireless network standards.

High growth in the number of IoT devices has caught the attention of two popular network standards: Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Both are trying to branch out beyond their traditional niches -- the former has a consumer bent, and the latter a business focus -- to become the IoT network standard market leader.

"We are in early stage of IoT deployments, and in terms of network connections, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi have emerged as potential market leaders," said Nolan Greene, senior research analyst at IDC.

The two network standards' technology roots and basic functionality are quite different. In 1994, Ericsson launched Bluetooth, which originally was envisioned as a wireless communication alternative to RS232 links. Initially, the network option was developed by the IEEE and was part of the 802.15.1 standard, but it is now overseen by the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), which develops standards and compliance tests. More than 30,000 vendors have had their wares sanctioned by the group.

Bluetooth, which works in the 2.4GHz frequency band, became popular because it is a simple, low-cost, low-power networking option. Bluetooth has a small form factor, supports a simple network stack and consumes 25% to 100% less power than Wi-Fi. Bluetooth has proven useful when transferring small amounts of data between two or a handful of devices that are in close proximity. Many Bluetooth applications have a consumer focus, such as cell phone headsets.

Low on bandwidth: Enter Bluetooth 5

One challenge of Bluetooth's has been its limited bandwidth; early versions of Bluetooth delivered 800 Kbps. The latest release, Bluetooth 5, which was announced in June 2016 and will debut in late 2016 or early 2017, doubles the previous top speed to 2 Mbps, quadruples the range and increases network capacity by 800%.

Wi-Fi HaLow seemed to get caught up in the standards making process.
Mark Hungresearch vice president, Gartner

Another challenge has been building large Bluetooth networks. Traditionally, this approach connected a handful of devices in self-contained networks. Also, Bluetooth pairing required that users set up wireless connections. Bluetooth 5 supports connectionless data transfers; the devices are smart enough to analyze the type of connection required to transmit the information. Enterprises can support 64,000 devices on a Bluetooth network, according to Errett Kroeter, vice president  of marketing at Bluetooth SIG.

Security has been another weak link. Bluetooth 5 supports encryption, but deploying that feature and integrating it with enterprise security solutions has been a challenge for businesses.

A wireless IP network standard emerges

Wi-Fi, which was officially launched in 1997, emerged as companies were looking for a wireless option for their IP networks. The IEEE has overseen development of the standard, which is defined under the 802.11x nomenclature. Since 2000, Wi-Fi Alliance has certified more than 30,000 products and billions of Wi-Fi connections have been deployed.

Traditionally, Wi-Fi-based networks worked in the 2.4, 3.6 and 5 GHz ranges and supported hundreds of Mbps and even Gbps transmission rates. In Wi-Fi, the maximum number of connections depends on wireless routers, which were designed to accommodate multiple connections. This network option transmits information at distances up to 100m, about three times greater than Bluetooth. Wi-Fi has gained interest in the IoT marketplace as enterprises try to extend IP and network intelligence to traditionally "dumb" devices on their transmission and distribution networks, according to Kevin Robinson, vice president of marketing at Wi-Fi Alliance.

Wi-Fi security standards have become stronger through the years. Wired Equivalent Privacy and Wi-Fi Protected Access are the two most used security accesses used in Wi-Fi, with the former being less secure than the latter. However, setting up a secure Wi-Fi network typically requires professional technicians, individuals with a great deal of expertise in network configuration and security solutions.

Power needs has been another area where Wi-Fi has shortcoming. Carrying more data, being able to work at longer distances and offering robust security drains power and shortens battery life.

The HaLow effect

Many IoT devices, such as sensors and wearables, are small and have little to no access to power. To address the market needs here, Wi-Fi Alliance announced Wi-Fi HaLow, which operates in the 900-MHz band, in January 2016 at the Consumer Electronics Show. One new function it offers is a sleep mode, which helps extend battery life. Another plus coming from using the lower part of the wireless spectrum is these network connections penetrate physical barriers, such as walls.

Wi-Fi HaLow does, however, create a few new challenges. First, the 900 MHz solution requires a separate overlay communication infrastructure of access points, which are distinct from existing Wi-Fi networks. The underlying IP protocol is the same, but the way that bits are packaged differs, so businesses need extensions to existing solutions or new products to monitor and manage Wi-Fi HaLow links. In addition, international businesses present other hurdles; in parts of Europe, Australia and Asia, the 900 MHz band is not available for commercial deployments.

A longish time window for rollout is a significant Wi-Fi HaLow issue: Wi-Fi Alliance plans to begin certifying HaLow products in 2018. "Wi-Fi HaLow seemed to get caught up in the standards making process," said Mark Hung, research vice president at Gartner.

Meanwhile, competitors like Bluetooth 5 will be building up their customer bases so in the early stage of the small form IoT device race, they will have an advantage. In fact, more than 371 million Bluetooth-enabled IoT beacons are projected to be shipped by 2020, according to ABI Research.

Traditionally, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi have gained traction in different areas, but IoT is drawing the two closer together. Wi-Fi has features that corporations desire while Bluetooth has momentum in the consumer sector. The two are beginning to encroach on each other's territory, so their futures seem more competitive and less complementary.

Next Steps

Learn more about running an IoT wireless network, why network resiliency is critical in IoT and how to support IoT devices through careful WLAN design.

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