Bluetooth diversification brings opportunities and challenges for analog designers

Thalia’s CTO Sowmyan Rajagopalan looks at the RF/analog and mixed signal challenges presented by the proliferation and diversification of Bluetooth technology

This year’s Bluetooth World marked the technology’s 20th anniversary. Although it’s now a mature wireless communications technology, the pace of its development shows no signs of slowing, with Bluetooth 5 and mesh networking high on the agenda at the event. Applications also continue to diversify: in the words of the Bluetooth SIG, “Bluetooth is now poised as an industrial-grade connectivity solution that will be the wireless constant in the IoT for decades to come”.

A year after its launch, Bluetooth mesh is gaining considerable traction; we have Bluetooth 4.0, which itself includes a standard high-speed mode, a low-energy mode with limited data rate, and a single-mode Bluetooth LE standard designed to keep power consumption to a minimum.

One of the other main messages from the SIG in its 20th Anniversary videos was simple: Bluetooth is good because “it just works”. It’s an attractive selling point for end users. But behind the scenes, the diversification and proliferation within the standard poses a challenge for designers, particularly in the analog, RF and mixed signal domain. And the performance metrics that engineers understand – transmission range, data rates, broadcast/multicast capacity – are not getting any easier to satisfy.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult for Bluetooth IP providers to address all of these requirements with a full range of solutions – and even more of a challenge to ensure that customers have the flexibility they need to choose the right process technology and foundry partner.

Like any challenge, this also presents opportunities. I agree with the Bluetooth SIG that we will continue to see rapid growth in the technology’s deployment. But for analog IP providers, grasping that opportunity means changing they way they think.

We need to take a more agile approach to analog IP creation and reuse; to deliver ‘IP on demand’ in this diversified Bluetooth world. Engineering teams within IP providers need routes by which they can create product variants, optimize performance, and rapidly retarget existing IPs to new processes and geometries.

Automation is part of the story here, but is by no means a ‘silver bullet’. It needs to be combined with the expertise of experienced analog designers.

At Thalia we advocate a system-level approach to the problem, encompassing both the specific behaviour of individual IP blocks and the overall performance of the complete system. Every IP we work on is verified and optimized for specification performance in the target process. We can retarget, fine-tune or produce variants of a complete Bluetooth front end solution in weeks. For example, we recently announced successful tape-out of a sub-40nm retargeting project with our customer Catena.

As Bluetooth World showed, the world of wireless communication is changing. Analog design needs to change along with it.

You can find out more about our solutions for Bluetooth IP providers here