Is Bluetooth Still a Threat to 802.11?

By Jim Geier

May 21, 2003

Bluetooth and 802.11 operate in the same frequency band using very similar technologies. Learn how they compare and whether you should include Bluetooth as a potential solution for wireless LANs.

As Bluetooth and 802.11 emerged over the past several years, many people thought that Bluetooth would compete heavily with 802.11. The introduction of Bluetooth products, however, has been much slower than 802.11 counterparts. Let's see if life still exists in the possibility of Bluetooth taking over the World.

Bluetooth Basics

The introduction of Bluetooth in May of 1998 was the result of several companies, such as Ericsson, IBM, Intel, Nokia, and Toshiba, working together to create a solution to provide wireless access to computing devices. The result is considered ideal for small devices, short range, and low power radio links. This makes Bluetooth a good fit for connecting PCs and laptop computers, phones, printers, PDAs, and cameras.

IEEE has made Bluetooth the basis for the 802.15 standard for wireless personal area networks (PANs). Bluetooth operates in the 2.4GHz band, using frequency hopping spread spectrum technology. It constantly hops over the entire spectrum at a rate of about 1,600 hops per second. Low power Bluetooth devices have a range of about 30 feet. Higher powered Bluetooth devices, however, can reach distances of around 300 feet, but this mode is fairly rare.

One significant downfall of Bluetooth is relatively slow operation. Data rates are only a couple of megabits-per-second (Mbps), well below that of 802.11a and 802.11b.

802.11 Basics

The 802.11 standard was completed in June of 1997 and is the basis of the Wi-Fi standard. Since then there have been some additions to the standard, namely 802.11a and 802.11b (with 802.11g pending ratification). Right now 802.11b is the most popular version, operating in the 2.4GHz spectrum with maximum data rates of 11Mbps and a range of about 300 feet. 802.11a is much faster than 802.11b at 54Mbps but has somewhat less range because of operation in the higher frequency 5GHz band.

Could Bluetooth replace 802.11?

So is there any significant competition for the market between 802.11 and Bluetooth? There definitely could be, because higher powered Bluetooth components are capable of achieving 802.11 ranges. The current Bluetooth products, however, are mostly low power and focus on wireless PAN functions. In addition, it would be difficult for any Bluetooth wireless LAN products to gain a strong foothold in the market because 802.11b products already have widespread adoption.

The place where Bluetooth really falls behind 802.11 is bandwidth. 802.11 components can reach data rates up to 54Mbps, while Bluetooth lags way behind at around 2Mbps. A network administrator would not think twice about choosing 802.11 over Bluetooth. Combined with relatively short range, this lower performance doesn't make Bluetooth feasible for covering larger facilities.

Could 802.11 replace Bluetooth?

This is possible, mostly because 802.11 meets or exceeds nearly all of the characteristics of Bluetooth. Because widespread adoption of Bluetooth is lacking, there's still time for 802.11 vendors to get their foot in the door with manufacturers needing to support needs for wireless PANs.

Some modifications would need to be made, however. The size of 802.11 components needs to be smaller, but that is becoming more of a reality as semiconductor companies strive for miniaturization of their 802.11 chipsets. These smaller components require less power, making them more competitive for devices, such as mobile phones, that have smaller batteries.

A Combined Solution

If the focus of Bluetooth stays on wireless PANs and 802.11 continues with only wireless LANs, then they'll both share a happy coexistence. In fact this is the most likely scenario. Many vendors, such as Intersil, Silicon Wave, and Mobilian, are developing chips that support both 802.11 and Bluetooth. This enables manufacturers to use either 802.11, Bluetooth, or both.

Jim Geier provides independent consulting services to companies developing and deploying wireless network solutions. He is the author of the book, Wireless LANs and offers workshops on deploying wireless LANs.

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