Our webinar on wireless protocols in commercial lighting is in the books. We hope you enjoyed the presentation of our CTO Simon Slupik and found the provided information valuable. Many thanks to our moderator, John Bullock, and to the entire Lux Review team for making this possible!

In case you were unable to attend, or would like to go through it all once again, you can watch the recording in Lux Review’s Webinars on Demand section. During the webinar, we examined how wireless communication is changing the lighting industry, analyzed the key strengths and weaknesses of the leading low-power wireless communication protocols, outlined the major challenges awaiting in the commercial lighting sector from the perspective of wireless communication technologies, and finally, tried to predict what this year’s adoption of Bluetooth mesh networking standard means for the lighting business.

We were thrilled by the attendance we had and we’ve received multiple interesting questions regarding wireless communication for connected lighting. We’re answering some of them in this blogpost. If you still have any questions about the Bluetooth mesh networking standard or Silvair solutions for professional lighting applications, we will be more than happy to answer them for you. Just contact us at business@silvair.com.

Below, please find our answers to selected questions from the Lux Review webinar:

  • Is Bluetooth mesh available/compatible/applicable to/with Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)?

The short answer is yes. The biggest change it’s introducing is the mesh topology, which is a radical departure from the limited and simple hub-and-spoke architecture known from the previous flavours of Bluetooth. When it comes to radio capabilities themselves, the Bluetooth mesh standard still remains based on the same low-power characteristics introduced by Bluetooth Low Energy. The mesh networking capability can be achieved both on older versions of Bluetooth Low Energy (4.x), as well as on the recently-released Bluetooth 5 which provides longer range, faster speed, and larger broadcast message capacity.

  • Could you explain the importance of a mesh network topology for lighting?

Mesh networking is essential for connected lighting applications mainly because of its extended range and peer-to-peer communication capabilities. With the lighting infrastructure evenly spread across any built environment, smart fixtures extend mesh network coverage to the limits of an entire building (and beyond, if needed). In a mesh topology, smart devices – fixtures, wireless switches, sensors, etc. – can not only receive messages and act upon them, but also distribute those messages within the network. This way, each node is connected to multiple other nodes, and devices can communicate with each other regardless of the distance between them. What is particularly important, Bluetooth mesh networking allows this communication to happen with no gateway in-between. This reduces costs and increases network robustness, while at the same time removing a single point of failure.

  • In the lighting industry, there are multiple companies providing solutions based on different protocols. Why do we need another one?

Indeed, a number of wireless technologies can be found in connected lighting solutions available today on the market, but the majority of these products are designed for smart home applications. Wireless communication never really took off in commercial spaces due to important drawbacks of legacy communication technologies. Building managers still prefer to stick to wired solutions, simply considering them way more reliable and predictable. Bluetooth mesh delivers a range of features that make it the world’s first wireless technology capable of driving the connected lighting revolution in commercial spaces. These include unmatched scalability, wire-like reliability, guaranteed cross-vendor interoperability and support for innovative location-based services.

  • Do you see Wi-Fi as a potential long-term threat in IoT applications that Bluetooth mesh seems to be addressing?

Not really. Wi-Fi is a great wireless technology capable of transporting high-definition video streams, but its impressive data transfer rates are overkill for connected lighting applications. Being a high-bandwidth communication standard, Wi-Fi is extremely power-intensive, which makes it impossible to build wireless switches or sensors employing this technology. The 802.11ah flavor – better known as Wi-Fi HaLow – was introduced not long ago to address some of the limitations that previous Wi-Fi technologies struggled with in the resource-scarce IoT environment. While the new Wi-Fi implementation does provide an extended range and more efficient energy management, there are multiple other issues that prevent it from being a viable candidate for professional lighting applications. These include the lack of peer-to-peer communication, the requirement for an access point device which becomes the network’s single point of failure, network provisioning difficulties resulting from the nature of the procedure of adding a new device to a Wi-Fi network, or the lack of advanced security features such as key management. Plus, it is just a transport layer which means it won’t help us deal with the problem of interoperability, one of the major roadblocks to widespread adoption of connected lighting systems.

  • So will Z-Wave, ZigBee and Thread be redundant when the Bluetooth mesh networking specification is finalized?

Over the past decade, legacy mesh technologies such as Z-Wave or ZigBee have had a considerable footprint in the development of IoT solutions, particularly in the home automation segment. Therefore, we expect they will continue to be used in a number of applications where they’ve been successful so far. The non-mesh Bluetooth protocol will also continue to exist as there are many applications where the mesh networking capability is simply not needed (just to mention smart locks, garage gates or all types of wearables). When it comes to lighting, there is currently no low-power connectivity standard that could ensure robust communication in high-density commercial lighting networks, particularly the ones that use sensors to drive efficiencies and constantly send data packets from smart fixtures and sensors to the cloud. Bluetooth Mesh is designed to handle challenging requirements of professional lighting applications where scalability, synchronous operation and high responsiveness are just as needed as ultra low power consumption. It is therefore perfectly positioned to become a go-to technology for professional lighting applications. The smart home segment is not that challenging from a technological point of view, so products such as Philips Hue might remain based on legacy wireless solutions (which is ZigBee in this particular case) to prevent confusion among customers and maintain backward compatibility. That said, it’s hard not to expect that in the long run Bluetooth Mesh will become a default technology for smart lighting also in home environment. It does everything other low-power solutions do, while introducing many important improvements in terms of reliability or security. On top of that, it delivers many exciting features that no other low-power technology can provide, just to mention its native compatibility with smartphones, proximity sensing capabilities, or no need for a central gateway.

Thread is an interesting technology for a number of reasons, solving many of the problems that Z-Wave and ZigBee struggle with. However, designed as a solution for smart home applications, it is based on not-so-exciting single-channel 802.15.4 standard with a maximum data rate of 250 kbit/s (compared to 1 Mbit/s of Bluetooth 4.x and 2 Mbit/s introduced by Bluetooth 5). It’s not scalable and cannot ensure low-latency communication in large-scale commercial lighting systems. Finally, on its own it doesn’t provide any solution to the problem of interoperability.

If you’d like to dive deeper into the strengths and weaknesses of Bluetooth, ZigBee, Z-Wave, Thread and Wi-Fi in building automation applications, download our comprehensive e-book “A tale of five protocols”. You won’t be disappointed.

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That’s it for now, thank you again for your attendance. We look forward to bringing you more interesting content in the future. If you have any questions or comments about our webinar, please email us at business@silvair.com and we’ll get back to you soon.