Broadcom Bets on New Bluetooth Tech for Mobile Health

The market for mobile healthcare is poised to surge over the next few years as smartphone use continues to ramp up and connectivity comes to devices like pedometers and heart-rate monitors.  And Broadcom (s brcm) is one of a small army of players hoping to benefit from a gadget-toting, health-obsessed population by pushing Bluetooth low energy (BLE) technology. That’s right: A variation of the wireless technology that connects your cell phone to a headset may now count calories during your jog.

Indeed, we’re already seeing gadgets like Fitbit (see disclosure below), DirectLife and Contour USB that help users monitor their health wirelessly. BLE is an alternative to ANT, which is a proprietary wireless sensor network technology. It also competes against  ZigBee and other low-power wireless technologies designed to minimize power consumption. BLE was ratified in December by the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) for very low-power applications such as sensor networks, and the technology has drawn support from Broadcom rivals Texas Instruments (s txn) and CSR (s csr).

Backers say the spec is ideal for remote health care and fitness applications as well as home networks and other sectors. Those emerging use-case scenarios will fuel a booming market over the next few years, according to ABI Research, which predicts manufacturers will ship more than 2.5 BLE chipsets in 2014. Part of that growth will be driven by the fact that BLE is an open standard,  which will help alleviate some of the fragmentation that currently exists with proprietary technologies, Broadcom executive Craig Ochikubo told me.

“Today there’s a lot of devices that are working in a sense over proprietary solutions — either wired or wireless — so you end up with a pedometer that will only work with a particular cellphone or exercise device,” said Ochikubo, the company’s VP and GM of wireless personal area networking business. “But what we’ve historically seen happen is when the app exists and moves into an open standard, the opportunity and adoption increase…The consumers are going to want that flexibility, and at the same time the OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) are saying that this is…a much better way to scale.”

Bluetooth also offers an encryption scheme for security, Ochikubo said, which will be crucial as BLE moves beyond end-user scenarios (think a consumer monitoring his workout at home with a smartphone app and Bluetooth-connected sensor) to more widespread uses within the medical community. Which is not to say that BLE’s role in connected care is a done deal in light of the chicken-and-the-egg situation hardware vendors find themselves in — phone makers and manufacturers of devices like sensors and monitors must each believe that the other side will buy in to lay a foundation for a BLE ecosystem. But much like Wi-Fi is rolling over proprietary technologies when it comes to local area networks, Bluetooth has a good chance for personal area networks.

Disclosure: FitBit is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.

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