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Ask the Experts: A Chat with Mark de Clercq about the State of Wireless Connectivity and the IoT

The worlds of wireless connectivity and the Internet of Things have been undergoing massive and rapid sea changes over the past couple of years. Consider the mainstream adoption of wearables, the introduction of new Bluetooth networking protocols like mesh, the deployment of smart home, office and car features – spanning everything from lightbulbs to thermostats to tires. The world is becoming connected at an unprecedented pace – and Dialog is at the forefront, empowering our customers with the tools to keep us all connected.

We took a few minutes to sit down with one of our resident experts, Mark de Clercq. Mark is the director of our Bluetooth Low Energy team, and is a real authority on all things connectivity, Bluetooth and the IoT. We asked Mark to break down some of the biggest trends taking shape in the connectivity landscape today, touching on everything from infrastructure, to security risks, to the role that Dialog’s own solutions play in all of this.

How does Dialog fit in the big picture of wireless connectivity? What is Dialog offering in terms of wireless connectivity and how are they working for our customers?

We offer a range of Bluetooth low energy devices to cater to the various application needs in the market. As many of the applications are battery powered, we focus intensively on lowering the power consumption of our devices, which is one of the key differentiators of our products.

Furthermore, we put a great deal of effort into understanding our end customers’ applications and ensuring that our products are able to provide as much of the necessary functionality on-chip, such as minimizing the amount of external components and thereby reducing the cost of the end product.

It’s estimated that by 2020 there will be over 30 billion connected devices worldwide – how can our current infrastructure accommodate the bandwidth demands of all those devices?

As the number of devices requiring connectivity increases, there are various ways to try and reduce the strain on available bandwidth. That being said, the infrastructure will greatly depend on the needs of the application and will have to be tailored to the needs of the latter.

From Dialog’s perspective, as a Bluetooth low energy device manufacturer, we work closely with the Bluetooth SIG, the standardization body for the Bluetooth protocol, to minimize the amount of “air time” needed to transfer data. By doing so, we cut down on the amount of time our devices occupy bandwidth. This has the dual benefit of also allowing other devices to operate during those down-time phases.

We also implement advanced co-existence interfaces to enable our devices to coordinate their activity with similar radios within the same system. Say, for example, you had a Wi-Fi radio next to one of our SmartBondTM Bluetooth low energy chips. By using our co-existence interface, you would be able to allow the application to coordinate the data transfer over the two radios with minimal to no interference.

Which protocols are people most likely to use and why? Do you foresee one standard becoming more widespread than others?

We believe that the protocols people are most likely to use are Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, 4/5G and NB-IoT. These all have the advantage of being a part of smart devices such as smart phones and tablets, making them ubiquitous.

Furthermore, while there is some overlap between the standard’s deployments in applications, they all have their strengths and weaknesses, making them both suitable for specific applications and, ultimately, complementary for each other. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi operate in the short to medium range. The latter covers low-power, low-data rate applications, and Wi-Fi extends to applications needing higher data rates. 4/5G and NB-IoT respectively bridge the long-range, high-data rate and long-range, low-data rate applications.

Due to this complementarity, these standards will able to co-exist and thrive in their respective sweet spots.

What cybersecurity solutions do you anticipate being put into place so that connected devices are less vulnerable to attackers?

Depending on the threat level, various security mechanisms are being integrated into devices to address the security needs of applications.

Our latest SmartBond devices integrate a slew of hardware security blocks to enable our customers to check the integrity of the software that is being executed on the device, and then encrypt the data communication at both the application level for end-to-end encryption, as well as at the link layer adhering to the Bluetooth standard security implementation.

Furthermore, our devices have dedicated mechanisms to take care of the storage and handling of secure keys that cannot be retrieved by hackers from the device.

With all of that security, one thing remains crucial: That our customers and the end users actually make use of these tools to ensure that their data is safe. The best security is worthless if it is not being enabled in the first place and used properly.

What are some other challenges that the IoT world faces over wireless connectivity? How do you see these issues being resolved in the future?

As more and more devices become wirelessly connected, there are two key challenges that will need to be tackled in order for expansion to continue.

The first challenge stems from the fact that businesses want to expand wireless connectivity to products and devices with extremely tight cost structures. How do you add connectivity to products that you use for a month or a week, i.e., disposables? To enable connectivity for these applications, we will need to address the total system cost of these products and, through innovation, find ways to drive the cost of wireless connectivity to new lows that were previously unimaginable for protocols such as Bluetooth low energy.

The second challenge relates to the energy source needed to power these billions of connected devices. Given that the vast majority of devices will not be connected to the mains, we will need to come up with creative solutions to enable our devices to operate on less and less energy so that energy-harvested power solutions for Bluetooth low energy become a reality.

At Dialog, we take these challenges very seriously. We already have the lowest-power-consuming Bluetooth low energy chips and are continuing to invest in innovation to drive this further and tackle the challenges to enable a future with billions of wireless connected devices.

Special thanks to Mark for fielding so many questions in today’s post. Stay tuned for more installments of Ask the Experts. And, in the meantime, check out Dialog’s array of Bluetooth low energy devices to see how our solutions are tackling today’s wireless connectivity landscape.