New Bluetooth Upgrade Could Provide a Big Audio Assist for Government

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The one-to-one limitation on Bluetooth devices may no longer be the case.

Over the past few years, Nextgov has focused quite a few stories about how cellular networks are upgrading to 5G, and the many advantages that the new technology can bring to government agencies compared with standard 4G networks. And while 5G certainly opens up some interesting possibilities for long-range and wide-area communications, that doesn’t mean that we should overlook pending upgrades to shorter range wireless technology.

For short range connectivity, Bluetooth has become the default standard used in almost everything. It’s embedded in smartphones, televisions, gaming consoles, advanced headsets, laptops, tablets, desktops and many other devices. It’s a reliable technology that uses UHF radio waves in the 2.402 GHz to 2.48 GHz range and has been deployed in millions of devices since its invention in 1998.

Bluetooth technology allows for one-to-one connections over very short distances. While Bluetooth 5.2, the latest version of the technology, has been tested to function between points that are up to 1,000 feet apart, the older versions had their ranges capped at about 33 feet.

Because of the shorter ranges involved with Bluetooth technology, its use in government service—beyond maybe connecting individual employees with their devices—has been limited. But even the shorter 33-foot range limit for older Bluetooth versions covers a fair amount of distance around connected devices. It’s not really the distances that have prevented the technology from seeing more widespread use in public situations. It’s the fact that the functionality is limited to one-to-one connections, making it less useful as a tool for mass communication.

That could be about to change. Last week the Bluetooth Special Interest Group announced that a new technology would be added to Bluetooth to give devices the ability to broadcast a signal that could be picked up and heard by an unlimited number of receivers. Called Auracast, it will fundamentally change the way that Bluetooth has been used over the past two and half decades.

The idea is that devices equipped with a Bluetooth Auracast transmitter can broadcast their audio signal out in all directions, kind of like a mini-radio station. And then people passing within range with a Bluetooth receiver, like a smartphone or headset, will be able to tap into that signal. On the receiving side, a new interface will make it so that users can connect to a Bluetooth Auracast signal as easily as they do a public Wi-Fi network.

There are lots of good uses for a technology like that in government. Think of a train station or other public transportation hub. Television monitors with schedules and other information can be set up as wireless transmitters, with people standing nearby able to listen in to the latest announcements. Museums and other public spaces could benefit as well, sending out information about exhibits and area features to anyone who wants to listen in. And because it uses a broadcast model, it does not matter how many people connect to an Auracast stream, just like it doesn’t matter how many people are listening in to a radio station at the same time. The signal quality remains unaffected by the number of users.

I talked with a spokesperson from the Bluetooth SIG group about the new Auracast technology, how exactly it would work, and what additional hardware or software will be required.

Nextgov: What will Auracast require in terms of new hardware for those receiving the broadcasts on their phones or headsets?

Bluetooth SIG: The new specs allow for upgradability of existing products in the field, but that is ultimately up to the underlying Bluetooth capabilities already in the device and the supplier’s product strategy. We do expect some will be upgradeable, but we do not have visibility to specific products.

Nextgov: Okay, what about the transmitters? Will agencies need to upgrade their hardware in order to launch Auracast broadcasts from, say, an existing television or public signage monitor? 

Bluetooth SIG: For certain Auracast transmitter product categories such as TVs, we expect many will require a hardware upgrade. However, for TVs, we also expect to see plug and play aftermarket Auracast transmitters that can be used to add support for Auracast broadcast audio.

Nextgov: What version of Bluetooth will be required for Auracast to work?

Bluetooth SIG: Technically, for any product to support Auracast broadcast audio it must support specific features that were introduced in version 5.2 of the Bluetooth Core Specification as well as the Public Broadcast Profile within the set of LE Audio specifications.

Nextgov: So, just to be clear: there is no longer the requirement for a one-to-one connection when using Auracast with Bluetooth technology?

Bluetooth SIG: With Auracast broadcast audio, there is no one-to-one relationship between the transmitter and each receiver. It is sending out a true broadcast signal and therefore does not require any additional bandwidth. It is transmitting a single audio signal that any number of in-range Auracast-capable receivers can join. You can think of it like a standard radio broadcast, where you have a transmitter sending out one signal and there are an unlimited number of in-range radio receivers that are able to tune into that broadcast. It’s the same principle.

Nextgov: And other than having to be physically within the range of the broadcast, there are no other limits on how many people can be receiving the information?

Bluetooth SIG: The Auracast transmitter is completely unaware of the number of devices that have tuned into the broadcast, just like a radio transmitter is unaware of the number of radio receivers that are tuned into the radio broadcast.

The Bluetooth SIG expects to see Auracast starting to deploy out into the world very soon. They envision a whole host of applications and situations that can take advantage of this fundamental change in Bluetooth capabilities. So we should all be seeing, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say hearing, those new audio capabilities very soon.

John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys