Using Bluetooth for Wi-Fi Onboarding

Published by Barbara Nelson February 28, 2018

At Cirrent, we work with a ton of WiFi connected products. In this experience, we see how a lot of companies approach Wi-Fi Onboarding. We’ve discussed many of this including SoftAP and today, we wanted to share our thoughts on Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE).

Bluetooth Low Energy can be used to create a local wireless link between a smartphone and a product to exchange Wi-Fi credentials needed to onboard the product onto the customer’s network.

To use BLE for Wi-Fi onboarding of connected products, the product must include a BLE chipset, associated hardware, and antenna. Some products may have this capability for the product’s primary purpose (to stream music, for example), and in some cases BLE can be added to the product specifically to simplify Wi-Fi onboarding. This may cost $1.50 - $3.50 per device depending on volume.

Most modern smartphones have BLE capability built in, and can take advantage of BLE to facilitate Wi-Fi onboarding. However many desktop computers do not have BLE technology (or don’t have an easy way for consumers to manage the BLE connection), so browser onboarding is not used widely with BLE.

With smartphones, BLE in iOS is fairly predictable and dependable. However, with Android, BLE is not reliable, and varies between different hardware and software versions.  Due to this variability, the flakiness of the BLE connection can cause support issues if this is the primary onboarding mechanism.

There are two big advantage of BLE over SoftAP. SoftAP disrupts the phone’s connection to the internet, because the phone has to associate to the connected product’s Wi-Fi network. This loss of internet connectivity can be confusing to users, and makes error handling much harder. Onboarding a product using BLE doesn’t interfere with the phone’s internet connection, so it’s a more reliable onboarding process.  Additionally, in iOS, the onboarding app cannot move the phone over to the softAP network without user involvement, which can be confusing, as it’s not clear to the user why they should change their network settings to set up a connected product.

However, there are disadvantages as well. The BLE onboarding solution cannot be done with a browser. In our testing, the Android implementations of BLE on older phones have been problematic as the phone sometimes cannot find the BLE network.

Here's an example of the ZipKey app doing Wi-Fi onboarding using Bluetooth. 

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However, on balance, we have found BLE to be a more reliable onboarding mechanism than Soft AP, so if a Bluetooth chip is available in the product for other purposes (like music streaming) we recommend using BLE for WiFi onboarding instead of Soft AP (when not in range of a ZipKey network). The best onboarding solution is ZipKey which is a cloud-based approach to reliably deliver the Wi-Fi credentials to the connected product with minimal user involvement.

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