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In brief: To say that it's rare for there to be a new network for devices to tap into would be an understatement. Cellular and Wi-Fi networks have been around for decades. Over the last few years, however, Amazon has been quietly building a low-bandwidth wide-area network called Sidewalk that's optimized for consumer and business-focused IoT applications that now covers 90% of the US population.
The concept behind Sidewalk was first mentioned in 2019, and the network was initially launched with a limited set of devices in 2021. But with this week's announcements about Sidewalk's expanded coverage area and the release of developer software and hardware tools from companies like Silicon Labs, Nordic Semiconductor and Texas Instruments, it's taken on a new level of importance.
Technically, Sidewalk is being enabled and powered by the millions of Echo smart speakers and Ring cameras that Amazon has sold since mid-2019. The company embedded a chip from the semiconductor company Semtech using a technology called LoRa (short for Long Range) into Echos and Ring Cameras to help enable the creation of what's officially referred to as an ad-hoc network. In addition to LoRa, Sidewalk can leverage Bluetooth LE and the same in-house FSK signaling method as 1990s-era 900 MHz cordless phones.
The way Sidewalk works is that it leverages the Wi-Fi-based internet links of Echo and Ring devices. It taps into a portion of that connection and uses longer-range network technologies, like LoRa to deliver basic connectivity to other Sidewalk-enabled devices. It's referred to as an ad-hoc network because there is no central point of control. Also, the connections occur by one device reaching to another and then that one to another and so on.
The practical end result is that devices that don't have the power or cost demands of embedding Wi-Fi or cellular technology can have basic internet connectivity, even where Wi-Fi signals (or theoretically even cellular signals) can't reach.
The practical end result is that devices that don't have the power or cost demands of embedding Wi-Fi or cellular technology can have basic internet connectivity, even where Wi-Fi signals (or theoretically even cellular signals) can't reach. The speeds of these connections are significantly slower than other alternatives – they're measured in the one- to two-digit kilobytes/second range – but for certain applications that's more than enough.
An early example of this was with Tile location-based devices, which can put out a signal that allows anything to which they're attached to be found via other internet-connected devices, even if the lost item is out of normal network coverage areas. If this sounds familiar, it should because it's very similar to how Apple AirTags work. The key difference is that Apple built an ad-hoc network with the millions of internet-enabled iPhones, iPads and other devices it has sold and by using the Bluetooth connections these devices also have. In Amazon's case, it did something similar with Echos and Ring Cameras.
As cool as the technology may sound, it doesn't come controversy free, however, for a few reasons. First, to enable these connections, Echos and Rings essentially share up to 80kbps of a home's internet bandwidth in order to make the connections with nearby devices in other homes or the neighborhood around which the Sidewalk-enabled devices are being used. In addition, while Amazon does let you prevent your device from sharing its connection over Sidewalk, it's turned on by default and most people don't know to or don't bother to change it.
Needless to say, not everyone loves that idea.
If you can get past these potential privacy concerns, the beauty of the concept is that suddenly there's a cellular-like network for low-cost, extremely low-power devices to tap into at no cost.
For the record, the Find My network that Apple uses for AirTags and other lost Apple devices uses similar technologies and concepts. Of course, Amazon (and Apple) are quick to point out that all data sent across these Sidewalk (or Find My) connections are encrypted at all points, and it's impossible for any existing device owner to see the data from a neighbor or passing car's device that briefly passes over their network. To date, there haven't been any known data breaches reported on these networks, but the recent attention the network has been receiving could change that.
If you can get past these potential privacy concerns, the beauty of the concept is that suddenly there's a cellular-like network for low-cost, extremely low-power devices to tap into at no cost. With the news that the network essentially now covers the vast majority of the US, this becomes a much more appealing concept for IoT device makers and software developers.
As a proof of concept, Amazon announced that it's working with several small companies who make IoT devices that are very well-suited to the Sidewalk network. Netvox makes a network-connected multi-sensor device for remote monitoring of things like water leaks, AC systems, etc. OnAsset has a sensor for tracking shipped goods and monitoring things like temperature for refrigerated foods. Finally, Primax is offering a Sidewalk-connected smart door lock that can also send notifications if a home's or other building's power (and Wi-Fi) is down.
In addition to these partners, Amazon also announced a set of tools and services from its AWS division that's designed to make it very easy for developers to create and deploy cloud-based applications that can leverage Sidewalk. And, for the record, this is how Amazon plans to make money from Sidewalk – at least initially. The AWS IoT Core for Amazon Sidewalk, for example, lets programmers who are familiar with AWS tools, easily create new services for Sidewalk devices. Amazon has released a Mobile SDK and other software tools and samples via GitHub repositories to speed the development of IOS and Android mobile applications that can leverage Sidewalk connections.
The truth is that IoT applications have never lived up to the initial hype and expectations that many consumers had for the category. A big part of the problem was that the dollar and energy cost of embedding wide-area connectivity into devices made it very difficult to produce products and services that made good economic sense.
While Sidewalk won't completely solve this problem, it could certainly go a long way in alleviating some big issues. But there's more that Sidewalk can and hopefully will do. For example, there aren't any current methods to connect Sidewalk to a Matter-based home network. Sidewalk is designed more for out-of-house applications and Matter for more in-house and in-building, but there are certainly situations where a similar set of IoT sensors could be useful in both worlds.
Ultimately, the idea of a new type of network for IoT applications is pretty compelling, though privacy concerns certainly need to be kept in consideration. If clever developers can figure out smart ways to leverage the new tool, the possibilities for connected access to even more devices and services could become real soon.
Bob O'Donnell is the founder and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech
Image credit: Bence Boros