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Wi-Fi & Bluetooth Mesh Could Steal CES Smart-Home Spotlight

The smart home, and IoT in general, continues to be a continually growing segment for retailers. According to Strategy Analytics, the smart-home market will grow from a $23.4 billion business in 2015 to a projected $32.5 billion in 2017, while ABI Research projects a 65 percent increase in smart-home shipments in 2017 compared to last year. And Market to Markets reported that the smart-home market is expected to grow to $58.68 billion by 2020.

Considering its relative youth as a market segment, smart home is still in the shake-out phase of its voyage. “Some worry that there are too many smart-home platforms in the market, and this could be confusing the consumer and potentially stunting market growth,” agreed Eric Bear, chief experience officer of CURB, a supplier of smart-home energy-monitoring devices. “The smart-home market is indeed seeing a flood of new products.”

While major players such as Apple, Amazon and Google are attempting to bully the business, “ clear winners won’t emerge in 2017,” predicted Bill Ablondi, director of smart-home strategies for Strategy Analytics. “We’re still in a period of competitive turbulence in which we’ll see more entrants.”

As a result, the most critical smart-home product for this year’s CES may not be a bulb, thermostat, switch, lock, appliance or any other smart device, or even an ecosystem. Instead, the biggest news in smart home and IoT are CES and 2017 may be the improvements in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth infrastructure that support the products consumers buy.

Wi-Fi Mesh Spreading

In the last few months, a half dozen vendors have started selling all-encompassing Wi-Fi mesh, aka “whole home Wi-Fi,” systems.

“Wi-Fi has become part of the infrastructure of homes just like electricity and running water, so the enhancement of coverage afforded by Wi-Fi mesh will be applauded by consumers,” explained Ablondi. “It will improve their streaming of content onto TVs, tablets, PCs and phones.”

These multi-node Wi-Fi mesh systems can spread a single network over an almost unlimited area simply by adding a node where necessary. These mesh solutions solve a plethora of prime consumer IoT pain points — poor home coverage, dead spots, lack of outdoor perimeter coverage, different networks in different parts of the home, to name a few.

“In the past, people purchased Wi-Fi extenders or additional access points,” observed Phil Solis, research director at ABI Research. “There were pros and cons to using either the same SSID or different SSIDs, and there were issues with remaining connected to the farther access point at a slower speed. These Wi-Fi mesh networks solve this problem by actively managing which devices are connected to which access points.”

This Wi-Fi mesh rage started with the eero about a year ago; in the last few months, Eero was joined in the market by several versions of Amplifi from Ubiquiti Networks, Netgear’s Orbi, Ally from Amped Wireless, Luma Surround Wi-Fi and Google Wi-Fi. Plume is a new Wi-Fi mesh entry, as is the Linksys Velop (January, $199 single, $349 2-pack, $499 3-pack) on display at the Belkin booth, AirTies, which will sell a two-pack mesh system ($144) through ISPs.

Bluetooth Mesh Spreading

It’s ironic that as Wi-Fi mesh spreads its signal more broadly, its wireless connection may soon become obsolete for controlling the growing cornucopia of smart-home devices. Bluetooth is theoretically more ideal to transmit control data, but has been largely absent in smart-home applications because of its limited range. Bluetooth mesh changes this equation.

At CES, attendees are likely to see the first Bluetooth 5.0, or Bluetooth Mesh, products, which will extend wireless control data signal range from 33 feet to nearly 100, and blanket a home with Bluetooth coverage via repeaters. As a result, hardware vendors can replace more power hungry Wi-Fi radios with lower power and lower latency Bluetooth for controlling smart devices.

“Bluetooth mesh has the potential to enable whole home control of devices, such as smart light bulbs, directly from your smartphone,” noted Andrew Zignani, industry analyst at ABI Research. “While devices can currently only be controlled within the range of your smartphone, you will now be able to turn light bulbs on or off no matter where it is placed around the home, as the message will be relayed between different intermediary Bluetooth devices. In addition, by enabling each device to share information about the context it’s in, the intelligence level of the overall network is also increased, allowing more sophisticated and context-based applications and functionalities to be developed.”

Since it’s universally compatible — older Bluetooth LE products can be firmware upgraded to be made compatible — Bluetooth mesh could endanger and even supplant smart-home ecosystem silos since no hubs or proprietary protocols would be necessary.

“Bluetooth mesh has the potential to challenge Z-Wave and ZigBee for the radios of choice for some smart devices,” opined Ablondi. CURB’s Bear agrees. “The products that will win out in the end will be platform-agnostic.” And that agnosticism is spelled Bluetooth.