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How Nokia triggered the global rise of Bluetooth LE

Smart watch and other smart gadgets

Bluetooth Low Energy is among the most transformative and widespread technologies to have emerged in the 21st century.  When you track your steps and calories burned throughout the day on your fitness tracker, you’re relying on Bluetooth LE. If you are hard of hearing, it is likely that Bluetooth LE Audio is helping you communicate with others. That package that arrived at your door the other day? Bluetooth-assisted logistics likely played a part. As of 2024, the technology is embedded in 5 billion devices annually. So how did we get to this point? The answer can be traced back to development work undertaken at Nokia in the early 2000s, and the company’s subsequent decision to make the technology available to the industry.

Building on the ‘classic’ Bluetooth

Back in 2001, Nokia started exploring technologies that could enable new types of wireless connectivity across devices. The ‘classic’ Bluetooth technology that emerged in 1998 was designed primarily for connecting wireless headsets to PCs and mobile devices.

I was part of the team that was interested in building on this new technology around the start of the new millennium, working closely with Mauri Honkanen, Kalle Kivekäs and others. We saw that Bluetooth Classic was effective for its original purposes, but it required quite a lot of battery power and was costly.  Our goal at that time was to discover ways to connect devices that could run for months on a button cell battery with Bluetooth Classic-enabled Nokia phones without the need for extra hardware.

We set about developing a form of low energy radio that ensured minimal radio frequency activity while improving battery life and reducing the silicon area. After thousands of hours of work, we announced the arrival of Wibree in 2006, a new kind of radio technology for local connectivity with limited power supply. Initially, our intention was that Wibree would operate on mobile devices in a dual mode alongside Bluetooth Classic to ensure manufacturers could adopt the technology without increasing costs per device.

Meanwhile, IoT technology and device manufacturers such as Nordic Semiconductor and Suunto were early collaborators with Nokia. Suunto began integrating Wibree technology into their own devices such as heart-rate monitors, fitness trackers, and other wearable sensors. It was becoming apparent that this was just the start and that the enhanced connectivity options could, and should, be leveraged. This sparked the true catalyst that caused Bluetooth Low Energy to find its way into the smartphones, smart homes and IT infrastructures we use today.

Nokia decided to contribute its Wibree technology for further collaborative development as part of the Bluetooth specification, and Bluetooth Low Energy, as we know it today, was adopted by the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG). Bluetooth SIG is the non-profit organisation, of which Nokia is a founding member, that oversees the development of Bluetooth standards and the licensing of the Bluetooth technologies.

The success story is far from over

The decision has proven to be a transformative one for manufacturers and end-users alike. The Bluetooth SIG has grown to 40,000 members, hundreds of which have developed new evolutions on BLE technology to bring it into our ambient environments. Over the past decade and a half, Bluetooth LE has been incorporated into applications that make our everyday lives easier, more efficient and safer. Consumer use cases include smart speakers, wireless earbuds, sensors that control our homes, and health monitoring devices such as continuous glucose monitors.

The core design principles of Bluetooth LE that we at Nokia created have also shown their versatility as the foundation of industrial IoT. For example, Bluetooth Mesh leverages many-to-many device communication that enables wireless warehouse lighting solutions, as well as the scalable and invisible connectivity network that these solutions use over vast warehouse areas. Meanwhile, High Accuracy Indoor Positioning (HAIP) is a Nokia-developed industrial positioning solution that allows operators to find and track assets in real-time.

All this has come as a result of Nokia deciding to contribute its technology to collaborative standards development in 2006. We can be proud of how Bluetooth LE has become such a key part of our technological environment. The world would be different without it. With ambient battery-free IoT applications now starting to emerge, the Bluetooth LE success story is far from over. In that sense, Nokia’s decision to contribute its technology to the Bluetooth SIG was undoubtedly the right one—not just for the company but for everyone and everything that uses Bluetooth devices today.

Antti Lappeteläinen

About Antti Lappeteläinen

Antti joined Nokia Research Center in 1995. Initially immersed in 3G simulations, his interest pivoted towards WLAN and Bluetooth research after a few years. Despite departing from Nokia in 2010, Antti found his way back in 2022, now working as a Lead Architect at CNS/ECE. Amidst his bustling schedule, Antti dedicates his spare moments to preserving the legacy of earlier generations, meticulously maintaining his summer cottage in its original form.

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