Bluetooth wireless: Fine-tuning the radio signals

Bluetooth's wireless technology promises to do away with the wires and cables by replacing them with radio signals. How will this affect the wireless revolution? Here's what you need to know about this exciting new component.

By now, nearly everyone has heard of Bluetooth , a wireless technology that connects different devices using radio signals. If nothing else, its promises to make the cables and wires that connect PCs, printers, PDAs, and fax machines obsolete.

More intriguing is the possibility that Bluetooth will allow devices to communicate with each other, allowing easier collaboration between mobile computing devices and the creation of what enthusiasts call “personal-area networks.”

But before Bluetooth ends up on your desk, its creators have to address several roadblocks. There is the possibility that Bluetooth’s signals could interfere with certain LANs. There are also concerns about having such devices—and their radio signals—aboard aircraft, due to their potential interference with cellular communications on the ground.

How is the industry addressing concerns over such problems? How soon will you be able to purchase Bluetooth products for your business? Can it live up to the hype surrounding it? Let’s take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of this emerging technology.
Bluetooth uses microchips outfitted with a tiny radio transceiver to communicate with devices within 10 meters of each other. Operating on a frequency of 2.4 GHz, Bluetooth uses spread-spectrum technology and can transfer both voice and data at a speed of 721 Kbps. Up to eight different devices can communicate at one time using Bluetooth.
Wireless potential
Besides the obvious benefit of being able to use computers, PDAs, and other devices without having to fumble with cables, Bluetooth’s greatest advantage is the ability it gives people to communicate with devices like printers, whiteboards, and fax machines—as well as with each other, said Giga Information Group analyst Dan Rasmus.

During a meeting, for example, participants using Bluetooth-enabled laptops could be posting comments to a plasma whiteboard. At the same time, information put on the whiteboard would appear on their computers.

“I’m looking at it as an enabler for collaboration,” Rasmus said. “I leave a meeting, and the last thing [I] usually hear is ‘I’ll type up the notes and e-mail them to you,’ as opposed to ‘I just sent them all to you.’”

The Bluetooth explosion
While estimates on Bluetooth’s use has varied widely, analysts see its use accelerating by 2001. A study by the Cahner In-Stat Group predicts there will be more than 670 million Bluetooth-enabled devices by 2005.

Jack Quinn, a researcher with Micrologic Research who has helped produce a Wireless 2000 study, has predicted that Bluetooth won’t catch fire until 2002 when more than 18 million Bluetooth chipsets will be in use.

The goal of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, a consortium of 1,300 companies that includes Ericsson , Intel Corp .,Toshiba , and Nokia , is to place a common transceiver into every device so that devices will be capable of universal communication. While analysts were speculating on whether the Bluetooth standard would ever be extended to software, it became more likely when Microsoft joined the consortium in December along with 3Com and Lucent Technologies .

With every advance, there is a problem
Despite Bluetooth’s potential, Rasmus contends that its momentum has been impeded by reports over its interfering with wireless, local-area networks that use the 802.11 standard. And though airline passengers are required to turn off two-way pagers and cell phones, it’s unclear how to disable the Bluetooth component in a device while the device is still running.

Using certain technologies, like cell phones, while aboard a plane can block out phone calls on the ground, causing potentially widespread communication problems. Alison Duquette, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said that Bluetooth-enabled devices qualify as portable electronic devices, which are prohibited by the FAA because of their potential to interfere with an aircraft's navigation and communication.

Intel spokeswoman Shannon Johnson said that Intel, as well as other consortium members, are working with the FAA to try and resolve concerns about using Bluetooth-enabled devices in flight.

But others remain skeptical. “If you can’t control it on airplanes and you can’t control it on devices, it’s going to become too risky to deploy because nobody will be able to use it anywhere,” Rasmus said. “I think those kind of reports are going to make hardware manufacturers leery of incorporating it into products.”

Other questions
There are also concerns over whether information sent between Bluetooth deviceswill be secure. But Quinn contends that Bluetooth transmissions will be more secure than the telephone.

“I don’t think there are any major security problems that can’t be addressed,” he said. “We all talk on telephones and anybody who wants can be tapping into your telephone conversation.”

Bluetooth uses a “frequency-hopping” scheme that “hops” 1,600 times a second to make electronic eavesdropping difficult.

Quinn said that Bluetooth also has the capability of being programmed to communicate exclusively with the devices you want it to. He compares it to a room full of cell phone users who can make separate calls without interfering with each other.

Bluetooth products and initiatives
While Bluetooth products haven’t been put into full-scale production, several companies have unveiled prototypes since last fall.

Last October, Widcomm demonstrated a Bluetooth module for use with Handspring’s Visor PDA. In November, Ericsson unveiled the Bluetooth Headset, a cell phone headset that connects to a mobile phone by radio. Handspring, which makes the Visor PDA, has also developed a Bluetooth module to synchronize data with a PC.

In December, Philips Semiconductors announced a development deal with Ericcson to manufacture Bluetooth products. Socket Communications Inc . announced during the same month that it would work with Cambridge Silicon Radio to develop Bluetooth products for PDA’s using Microsoft’s Windows CE platform.

In December, Intel ran a demonstration of two notebooks that synchronized data between them. Johnson said the company is planning on releasing Bluetooth notebooks by mid-2000.

One chip, not two
While Quinn believes it’s conceivable that there will be hundreds of Bluetooth-enabled devices out by the beginning of 2001, it won’t become practical for manufacturers until the technology can be produced with one chip.

“The ones that I have seen [released] are two chips,” Quinn said. “There are numerous others that are working on single-chip solutions.”

The problem that manufacturers face is getting both the radio frequency and the baseband network on the same chip, Quinn said. While some claim to have solved the dilemma, there haven’t been any single-chip products released yet.

Quinn also argues that the price of Bluetooth must come down as well. He figures that the Bluetooth chipset will cost about $14.40 this year. For manufacturers to be able to produce Bluetooth-enabled items on a large scale, it must be done for around $10, he said.

The next big thing or the next IrDA?
Before Bluetooth, companies searching for wireless connectivity got cozy with infrared technology. But unlike Bluetooth, which operates within a certain distance of other Bluetooth devices, infrared requires a straight line-of-sight for devices to connect.

“It’s just too much of a hassle to use IrDA,” Quinn said. “If you want to use your notebook to print on the printer, you’ve got to point your notebook at the printer and make sure that both of them are configured to use IrDA.”

If you’re using a relatively new PC or a laptop, it’s likely there’s an infrared icon at the bottom of your screen. But will you begin seeing Bluetooth icons on your computer anytime soon?

“I’m not sure it will get that far,” Rasmus said. “The issue right now is: Does it get past its problems and actually get implemented? If it does, I think it’s got great potential.”
Is Bluetooth the next big thing or a flop-in-waiting? How do you see it changing your work experience? Post a comment below or send us an e-mail and let us know.

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