BLE beacon technology made simple: A complete guide to Bluetooth Low Energy Beacons
Last Updated: June 18, 2019
What is BLE? What does it stand for?
BLE stands for Bluetooth Low Energy (Bluetooth LE, and marketed as Bluetooth Smart).
BLE is a form of wireless communication designed especially for short-range communication. BLE is very similar to Wi-Fi in the sense that it allows devices to communicate with each other. However, BLE is meant for situations where battery life is preferred over high data transfer speeds. 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 without draining the battery.
Most smartphones and tablets today are BLE compatible, 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 technology 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 Bluetooth Low Energy 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 promoting 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.
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.
Models with BLE support
iPhone 4 and newer
iPad 3rd generation and newer
iPad mini and newer
iPod touch 5th generation and newer
Android phones and tablets
All Android phones with Android 4.3 and newer
Bluetooth classic vs Bluetooth Low Energy
What is Bluetooth? How is Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) 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.
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.
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.
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 Low Energy (BLE)
Data Transfer Rate
Time to send data
Less than 15mA
Applications suited for
Use-cases that need continuous streaming of data, such as headphones
Use-cases that do not require continuous streaming of data, such as proximity marketing campaigns.
What is virtual BLE?
Instead of a physical beacon that needs to be deployed, virtual BLE is simply a beacon point that is added to existing Wi-Fi networks. The BLE broadcast functionality achieved through a BLE antenna is added to a Wi-Fi access point. This eliminates the need for beacons and batteries. Such virtual BLE networks can be leveraged for indoor navigation.
BLE technology 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 Bluetooth Low Energy 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 technology 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.
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-story stores, shopping malls and museums.
Virtual BLE negates the need to have a physical beacon in this particular use case. By latching onto existing Wi-Fi networks, beacon points are able to create a range that resembles a beam of a flashlight. More energy is pushed in front of the beacon antenna compared to the sides. This energy forms a power distribution resembling an ellipse.
The location of a user is determined by assigning a probability weight to each point in the map. After calculating the expected signal strength and the measured signal strength, the location of the device (user) is determined with great accuracy.
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.
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 in real estate
Real estate is one of those verticals where businesses have recently picked great interest in using BLE beacon technology to boost their customers’ experience. Realtors are leveraging beacons for spreading awareness about open house events, capturing leads by broadcasting information about available properties, and most importantly distributing digital business cards.
For attracting buyers,
Mounting beacons on sale signs and lawn signs to give detailed information of the property
Broadcasting a list of available properties
For capturing leads,
Sending digital business cards
Enabling online booking for property visits
Sending a property quote in return of personal details
For in-property engagement
Virtual home tours
Sharing the property highlights and in-home options
Informing about amenities and neighbourhood
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 (UPDATE: Please read our blog post on how to transition from Nearby to NearBee). 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.
In the era of ubiquity and interoperability of Bluetooth technology, BLE is now synonymous with beacons and it is the go-to advertising and engagement channel for physical businesses. If you are looking to get started with BLE beacon technology for proximity marketing, checkout Beaconstac.
I am fascinated by tech-driven marketing. Love to read & write about entrepreneurship and tech-driven business strategies for B2B and B2C companies. Have b(e)acon and eggs for breakfast and always up for doughnuts!