Chip Firms Battle Over Bluetooth for IoT

04 February 2015

Silicon Laboratories Inc.'s purchase of Bluegiga is but the opening salvo in a 2015 short-range wireless connectivity battle between semiconductor elites drunk on the ethereal promises of the Internet of Things, yet cognizant of the impact of Bluetooth v4.0—and the enormous potential of Bluetooth v4.2, its most recent IoT-enabled iteration, released in December.

With the $61-million purchase of Bluegiga Technologies Oy (Espoo, Finland) and its portfolio of Bluetooth Smart, Bluetooth Classic, Wi-Fi modules and software development expertise and kits, Silicon Labs complements its own portfolio of 802.15.4 ZigBee and Thread mesh networking software, ultra-low-power sub-GHz radios, and wireless MCU and transceiver products.

The combined suite of offerings allows Silicon Labs to position itself as a "one-stop-shop" for wireless connectivity at a time when applications for both short-range, ultra-low-power and personal-area networking, as well as longer-range, high-data-rate connectivity are exploding, all fueled by an IoT frenzy.

This IoT frenzy was in full swing at the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2015) where applications ranging from fitness and medical to home gadgets, automotive and remote monitoring, were on display. There it became clear that Bluetooth Smart was the low-power wireless connectivity option of choice, according to Stephanie Gibbons, senior analyst for IoT and Connectivity at IHS Technology.

This now puts Silicon Labs smack in the middle of what will be a ferocious battle for market share between Bluetooth incumbents Nordic, Texas Instruments and Cambridge Silicon Radio (CSR), and increasingly strong newcomers, such as Dialog Semiconductor, Atmel, Microchip, Broadcom, and Cypress Semiconductor.

"2015 has a lot of competition coming in," said Lee Ratliff, principal analyst for connectivity and IoT at ?IHS Technology.

In 2014, Nordic, TI and CSR together owned 95 percent of the 162 million Bluetooth Smart ICs shipped, said Ratliff, making Bluetooth Smart 11 percent of the total 2014 low-power wireless (LPW) IC market. By 2018, Bluetooth Smart’s share of the LPW market is projected to rise to 43 percent of the grand total of 2.7 billion units IHS expects will ship that year.

Ratliff noted that Bluegiga uses TI CC2540 and CC2541 chips for its Smart modules, but said he fully expects that to change within six months as a result of the Silicon Labs purchase, given that Silicon Labs is working to bring a Bluetooth Smart ship to market having acquired a design when it bought Energy Micro in 2013. “When they do, you can be sure they will produce a module for it. Until then, they’ll have to stick with TI,” Ratliff said.

"An interesting question will be if other module makers that currently buy from Silicon Labs will continue to do so now that Silicon Labs is a competitor," Ratliff said.

Low power and mesh networking are differentiators

With the rush to get on the bandwagon after Bluetooth Smart and Smart Ready emerged as part of Bluetooth v4.0 in 2010—Apple made the iPhone 4s Smart Ready in 2011—many companies bought their way into the market, much the same way as Silicon Labs has done.

For example, Microchip acquired Roving Networks in April 2012, followed a later by the acquisition of Taiwan-based ISSC Technologies Inc. in 2014. For its part, Atmel acquired Newport Media and its Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology in July 2014.

Similar to Silicon Labs, both companies add Bluetooth Smart to their core expertise in other areas besides wireless, namely MCUs and analog/mixed-signal expertise, where the combination of intelligence plus connectivity options across the board, from wired to Wi-Fi to Bluetooth Smart and ZigBee, is the main play in a drive to capture the widest swath of potential customers and applications.

However, the Bluetooth Smart connection itself still offers a big opportunity for differentiation, and two paths to that differentiation are achieving the lowest power possible, as well enabling the next stage in Bluetooth: mesh networking.

Already, Dialog Semiconductor is leading the way in low power, said Ratliff, with a radio lineup—SmartBond—that requires just 5 mA to achieve the maximum Bluetooth Smart transmit power of 0 dBm, compared to the typical radio that requires 20 to 25 mA, he said. The Bluegiga radio does relatively well, with a peak transmit current of 18.2 mA, but is still nowhere close to Dialog’s SmartBond Bluetooth radios.

Figure 1: Dialog Semiconductor’s SmartBond line of Bluetooth Smart SoCs lead the pack in low power consumption, requiring just 5 mA to drive at full transmit power of 0 dBm. Typical devices require 20 to 25 mA.

This power differential is important but may be short-lived, said Ratliff, as the next generation of devices from the competition will likely get to where Dialog is now using more advanced processes and design techniques.

Instead, differentiation will likely be through the various iterations of mesh networking protocols that are currently available.

Mesh networking has always been the calling card of ZigBee, which recently also added IP addressability. However, with the release in December of Bluetooth v4.2 —with its new security features and IP addressability for IoT applications—ZigBee has lost an advantage. In turn, Bluetooth advocates have acquired much-needed support and features to truly allow it to flourish in IoT-based applications.

Figure 2a

Figure 2b

Figure 2c

Figure 2: Bluetooth v4.2 also added some IoT-specific features that truly bridge the gap between Bluetooth and the IoT, including flexible Internet connectivity options (a), enhanced security (b), and a data throughput increase (c), all of which, when combined with pervasive smartphones and home gateways, make Bluetooth v4.2 a strong option for IoT connectivity.

However, mesh networking, which will both increase network range while providing improved link reliability, remains unstandardized and a wildcard, one that Ratliffe believes the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) will address this year, likely leading to a 2016 release.

There are a number of mesh protocols available, already. Of these, the leader is Thread, which has backing from Silicon Labs, Freescale, ARM and Samsung. Microchip has its MiWi and, of course, ZigBee itself remains at large. However, Ratliff believes the SIG favorite is CSRmesh, a mesh protocol for Bluetooth Smart radios that was developed by CSR and demoed live at the company’s CES party at the Life nightclub in Las Vegas. The demo was done primarily to showcase CSRmesh’s beyond-home capabilities.

The protocol allows a single handheld device to control an almost unlimited number of Smart devices, but the demo in Vegas was limited to controlling the color of 1,000 glow sticks held by club attendees. The protocol’s main attractions are its high level of security, the ability to work with existing devices, simple setup, and of course the fact that it was designed for Smart devices.

Since developing the protocol, Qualcomm bought CSR in October 2014, but Ratliff doesn’t expect CSR or Qualcomm to get a huge time-to-market advantage over the other semiconductor vendors if the SIG does finally choose CSRmesh. He predicts competitors will make sure enough additions are included to minimize the possibility of any such advantage.

Meanwhile, Smart Ready devices, which primarily comprise mobile platforms such as smartphones, tablets and laptops, continue to proliferate. By the end of 2015, Gibbons expects that Smart Ready devices will out-ship Bluetooth Classic-only devices, making hubs for Bluetooth Smart devices almost ubiquitous by default, and underscoring the rise of Bluetooth Smart as a solid IoT wireless interface of choice for low-power, battery-driven applications.

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