What Is Bluetooth Wireless Networking?

Bluetooth. David Becker / Getty Images

Definition: Bluetooth is a radio communication technology that enables low-power, short distance wireless networking between phones, computers and other network devices. The name Bluetooth is borrowed from Harald Bluetooth, a king in Denmark who lived more than 1,000 years ago.

Using Bluetooth

Bluetooth technology was designed primarily to support networking of portable consumer devices and peripherals that run on batteries.

Bluetooth support can be found in a wide range of devices including

  • cell phones
  • wireless headsets (including hands-free car kits)
  • wireless keyboards
  • printers
  • wireless speakers
  • PCs

How Bluetooth Works

Two Bluetooth devices connect to each other by a process called pairing. By pressing a button or setting a menu option on the unit, a Bluetooth device will initiate a new connection. Details vary depending on the type of device. Here are some examples:

Many mobile devices have Bluetooth radios embedded into the unit. PCs and other devices can also be enabled through the use of Bluetooth dongles.

Bluetooth networks feature a dynamic topology called a piconet or PAN. Piconets contain a minimum of two and a maximum of eight Bluetooth peer devices. Devices communicate using network protocols that are part of the Bluetooth Specification.

The Bluetooth standards have been revised over many years starting with version 1.0 (not widely used) and 1.1 up to version 4.2.

Radio signals transmitted with Bluetooth cover only short distances, typically up to 30 feet (10 meters). Bluetooth was originally designed for lower-speed wireless connections although technology advancements over the years have increased its performance considerably.

Early versions of the standard supported connections below 1 Mbps while modern versions are rated up to 25 Mbps.

Bluetooth vs. Wi-Fi

Although Bluetooth utilizes the same standard 2.4 GHz signal range as conventional Wi-Fi, it cannot provide the same level of wireless connectivity. Compared to Wi-Fi, Bluetooth networking is much slower, more limited in range, and supports many fewer peer devices.

A form of Wi-Fi called Wi-Fi Direct can be used as an alternative to Bluetooth for pairing two devices that support Wi-Fi radios. 

Bluetooth Security

As with other wireless protocols, Bluetooth has received its fair share of scrutiny over the years for network security weaknesses. Popular television dramas sometimes feature criminals pairing their Bluetooth phone to an unsuspecting victim's, where the criminal can then eavesdrop on conversations and steal private data. In real life, of course, these attacks are highly unlikely to happen and sometimes even not possible in the way they are portrayed.

While Bluetooth technology incorporates its fair share of security protections, security experts recommend to turn off Bluetooth on a device when not using it to avoid any small risk that exists.