Bluetooth Beacons: A to Z

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What’s BLE? and What does it stand for?

BLE stands for Bluetooth Low Energy and marketed as Bluetooth Smart.

Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) is a form of wireless communication designed especially for short-range broadcast. It meant for situations where battery life is preferred over high data transfer speed. For example, say you want to broadcast marketing campaigns in the close proximity of a newly launched headphone. The amount of data you need to transfer to a visitor’s smartphone is extremely small, hence BLE compatible beacons do the job quickly by consuming less battery.

Most smartphones and tablets today are compatible with BLE, which means they can seamlessly communicate with Bluetooth enabled wireless headphones, digital signage, car stereos, fitness trackers, smartwatches and hardware devices like beacons.

How does BLE work?

BLE data transfer is essentially a one-way communication. Let’s take an example of BLE beacons trying to communicate with a smartphone in close proximity – a beacon broadcasts packets of data at regular intervals of time. These data packets are detected by app/pre-installed services on smartphones nearby. This BLE communication triggers actions such as, pushing a message or prompting an app.

To save energy and provide higher data transfer speed, the entire BLE communication framework consists of 40 frequency channels, separated by 2MHz. 3 of these channels are the primary advertisement channels while the remaining 37 channels are secondary channels, also known as data channels. The Bluetooth communication starts with the 3 primary advertisement channel and then offloads to the secondary channels.

How does BLE work

What devices support BLE? Which Android phones support BLE?

Most smartphones and tablets built since 2012 support BLE. However, since Android phones vary widely, some models might support BLE, while others support an older version of Bluetooth. The table below summarizes which iOS devices have BLE.

DeviceModels with BLE support
iPhoneiPhone 4 and newer
iPadiPad 3rd generation and neweriPad mini and newer
iPod touchiPod touch 5th generation and newer
Android phones and tabletsAll Android phones with Android 4.3 and newer


Bluetooth classic vs Bluetooth Low Energy

What is Bluetooth? How is Bluetooth Low Energy different?

There are two major technologies within the Bluetooth core specification – Bluetooth classic and Bluetooth Smart (Bluetooth Low Energy). The major difference between the two lies in the power consumption in each case. However, there are other factors why Bluetooth Smart is being pulled in for interesting technology applications.

  1. Power consumption

This is what makes BLE so special! Businesses can use just four batteries to power Bluetooth devices for several months or years. However, for classic Bluetooth, given the higher data throughput, its power consumption can be really high.

  1. Applications

Classic Bluetooth is great for applications that require continuous streaming of data, for example, headphones. However, BLE is suited for applications that work well with a periodic transfer of data, and hence reduces a significant amount of battery usage. This makes BLE suitable for IoT and proximity marketing-related applications.

  1. Simultaneous connections

BLE can establish up to 20 connections simultaneously. It supports more simultaneous connections because it transfers small data packets and establishes quick connections. Classic Bluetooth on the hand can initiate only 7 simultaneous connections.

Here’s a table to compare the capabilities of classic Bluetooth vs Bluetooth Low Energy

Bluetooth ClassicBluetooth Low Energy (BLE)
Data Transfer Rate2-3 Mbps200 Kbps
Time to send dataTypically 100msTypically 3ms
Power consumptionApprox 30mALess than 15mA
Applications suited forUse-cases that need continuous streaming of data, such as headphonesUse-cases that do not require continuous streaming of data, such as proximity marketing campaigns.

BLE and beacons

What is a Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacon?

BLE beacons, as the name suggests are beacons that communicate via Bluetooth Low Energy. Beacons are small radio transmitters, strategically mounted throughout locations, to broadcast BLE signals in a given range. This range depends on the hardware capability. On an average, a beacon can transmit BLE signals to 80 meters. This BLE signal from the beacon is capable of triggering a specific action relevant to the location.

How is BLE used with beacons?

Beacons send out an ID number via BLE channels, approximately 10 times every second. A Bluetooth-enabled device in proximity of the beacon picks up this ID number. When an app or pre-installed service like Google Nearby recognizes the ID number, it links it to an action, such as download an app, or piece of content (maybe a marketing offer) stored on the cloud, and displays it on the smartphone.

What is a beacon

BLE use cases

1. Proximity marketing

Shoppers hate promotional messages which are out-of-context. Therefore, businesses have to get smarter with their marketing campaigns. These campaigns have to be extremely personalized and relevant. This not just boosts the sales but also increase the brand loyalty. Companies like Macy’s, McDonald’s, Walmart and Lord & Taylor are making their campaigns extremely relevant, thus useful, for their visitors. (Learn more about proximity marketing using BLE beacons)

 2. Hyperlocal check-in

BLE driven check-ins unlike Facebook or Foursquare, are highly targeted and enable visitors to point out accurately where they are in the facility. This feature could be used in conjunction with specific location-based promotions or reward-based games, like a scavenger hunt.

3. Retargeting Ads

BLE beacon solutions, like Beaconstac, empower businesses to reach out to visitors even after they check out of the store/property. Once a visitor engages with any in-store campaign, they are exposed to the same brand when they go online – Facebook or Google.  (How to set up a Facebook retargeting ads using BLE beacon)

4. Asset tracking

This is another popular Bluetooth LE beacon use case. Instead of broadcasting IDs to mobile devices, the BLE beacon “listens” for the unique IDs of BLE tags attached to objects. Because these tags can be equipped with sensors—for things such as light, sound, movement and temperature—the applications are many, from tracking of wheelchairs and infusion pumps in hospitals to monitor the movement, speed and vibration of an airport baggage conveyor.

5. Indoor navigation

GPS works great for outdoors – but we have all seen GPS solutions go crazy indoors. BLE infrastructure works great indoors and outdoors! A combination of three indoor beacons is sufficient to find the accurate position of a smartphone. Indoor navigation using BLE systems offers turn-by-turn directions, marks the important venues and indicates the recommended route. This is especially helpful for multi-storey stores, shopping malls and museums.

BLE beacon implementation across verticals

BLE entered the market when Microsoft announced their experimentation with BLE and facial recognition. These efforts were in the context of minimal-effort mPayments. Followed by Microsoft, many other proponents touted BLE as a viable replacement to NFC. BLE beacons, however, made some incredible progress in other applications as well – attracting visitors and enhancing the customer experience across verticals. Let’s take a look at some of these BLE beacon use cases.

BLE enabled retail experience

The primary focus of retailers has always been to attract more shoppers to their venues/stores. However, in the last few years, physical stores have evolved to bring forth much more for its visitors. The needle has significantly moved towards simplifying the payment process and offering engaging and immersive shopping experience.

BLE enabled retail experience

The entire retail experience is transformed using BLE

Pretailing: BLE beacons present strong business propositions (offers/listings) at the right time and right place to engage with the customers. Pretailing includes attracting more shoppers through location-based push marketing, relevant in-store offers to drive purchase decisions, shopper assistance and working on customer analytics to make better business decisions.

Payments: Even though beacons have witnessed tremendous growth in advertisement and customer engagement space, its applications in contactless payment are powerful. Retailers need BLE enabled POS machines to drive contactless payments.

Post-purchase: After the first transaction is made, the core focus of a retailer is to get the consumer back. From broadcasting loyalty offers, to retargeting consumers when they go online, beacons can be of great help!

BLE beacons at events and stadiums

Proximity-aware event apps are found to be 235% more engaging than standard mobile apps at events. And given that, BLE beacons today do not require apps for broadcasting notification on Android, this engagement is much higher. Event marketers are enhancing visitor engagement by leveraging beacons for gamification, frictionless registration, improved networking, auto check-ins and indoor navigation.

Other verticals making the best use of BLE beacons are hospitals, museums, airports, tourism and public venues, like amusement parks and train stations.

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