December 3, 2020
Amazon Sidewalk will create entire smart neighborhoods. Here's what you should know

Amazon Sidewalk will create entire smart neighborhoods. Here’s what you should know


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James Martin/CNET

Amazon has had its sights set on the smart home ever since Alexa came along — but now the online mega-retailer is thinking bigger, and envisioning entire smart neighborhoods. First announced in 2019, the effort is called Amazon Sidewalk, and it uses a small fraction of your home’s Wi-Fi bandwidth to pass wireless low-energy Bluetooth and 900MHz radio signals between compatible devices across far greater distances than Wi-Fi is capable of on its own — in some cases, as far as half a mile, Amazon says.

You’ll share that bandwidth with your neighbors, creating a sort of network of networks that any Sidewalk-compatible device can take advantage of. Along with making sure things like outdoor smart lights and smart garage door openers stay connected when your Wi-Fi can’t quite reach them, that’ll help things like Tile trackers stay in touch if you drop your wallet while you’re out on a walk, or if your dog hops the fence.

Amazon Sidewalk is coming this year as a free feature for Alexa and Ring users.


Amazon

Maybe most noteworthy of all is that Amazon Sidewalk won’t require any new hardware, at least not for short-range benefits like easier device pairing. Instead, it’ll arrive as a free software update to the Echo speakers and Ring cameras people already have in their homes. Anyone who gets the new, spherical Echo or the Echo Show 10 will also be able to use those new 900MHz connections to extend the range of their smart home by up to half a mile, at least with Sidewalk-enabled devices. They’ll also contribute to that large-scale, out-of-home network that other users can take advantage of. And yes, you’ll be able to turn Sidewalk off.

Amazon didn’t have a whole lot to say about Sidewalk at its September products showcase, but it’s likely that we’ll hear a lot more about it in the weeks ahead, as Amazon draws closer to a launch. For now, here’s everything we know about it.

How exactly does Sidewalk work?

Amazon is designating many of its existing Echo and Ring gadgets (and presumably the majority of its new devices from here on out) as Sidewalk bridges. That means that they’re equipped to siphon off a tiny amount of your home’s Wi-Fi bandwidth and then use it to relay signals to Sidewalk-compatible devices using Bluetooth Low Energy, or BLE.

The new, spherical Echo and the Echo Show 10 are also equipped to communicate with devices using 900MHz LoRa signals. Those kinds of low-energy signals can’t carry much data at all, but they can travel great distances.

“BLE is used for short range benefits such as simplifying new device set up or helping your device reconnect at short range when it loses its Wi-Fi connection,” an Amazon spokesperson tells CNET. “Sidewalk uses the 900MHz spectrum to extend the low-bandwidth working range of devices, and help devices stay online even if they are outside the range of their home wifi.

Amazon claims that the 900MHz band, which is the same band used for amateur UHF radio broadcasts, allows for range of up to half a mile. So, if you get a new Echo or Echo Show 10, you’ll be able to send wireless signals to Sidewalk-compatible devices across a huge area. And, if you had a Sidewalk-enabled device like a Tile tracker paired with your Sidewalk bridge, you’d be able to connect with it so long as it was within half a mile of anyone else’s Echo or Echo Show 10.

With Amazon Sidewalk, data travels from the device to the application server and back by way of the Sidewalk bridge (or gateway) and Amazon’s Sidewalk Network Server.


Amazon

Are there any security or privacy concerns?

There’s definitely a lot to think about. By design, smart home tech requires the user to share device and user data with a private company’s servers. By extending the reach of a user’s smart home, Sidewalk expands its scope and introduces new possible uses. That means new features and functionality, yes — but it also means that you’ll be sharing even more with Amazon.

Jeff Pollard, an analyst at Forrester, took the example of a dog with a Tile-type tracking device clipped to its collar when he described his concerns to CNET last year.

“It’s great to get an alert your dog left the yard, but those devices could also send data to Amazon like the frequency, duration, destination and path of your dog walks,” Pollard said. “That seems innocuous enough, but what could that data mean for you when combined with other data? It’s the unintended — and unexpected — consequences of technology and the data it collects that often come back to bite us (pardon the pun).”

In this example, a Ring motion alert passes through three levels of encryption on its way to the Ring server. During the trip, Amazon can’t see the inside of that packet — just the data needed to authenticate the device and route the transmission to the right place.


Amazon

Now, as Sidewalk prepares to roll out across Amazon’s entire user base, the company is looking to get out ahead of concerns like those. IN September, Amazon released a detailed white paper outlining the steps it’s taking to ensure that Sidewalk transmissions stay private and secure.

“As a crowdsourced, community benefit, Amazon Sidewalk is only as powerful as the trust our customers place in us to safeguard customer data,” Amazon writes.

To that end, Amazon compares Sidewalk’s security practices to the postal service. In this analogy, Amazon’s Sidewalk Network Server is the post office, responsible for processing all of the data your devices send back and forth to their application server and making sure everything gets to the right place. But the post office doesn’t get to read your mail — it only gets to read the outside of the envelope. And when it comes to your device data, Amazon says, it uses metadata limitations and three layers of encryption to create the digital version of the envelope.

“Information customers would deem sensitive, like the contents of a packet sent over the Sidewalk network, is not seen by Sidewalk,” Amazon writes. “Only the intended destinations [the endpoint and application server] possess the keys required to access this information. Sidewalk’s design also ensures that owners of Sidewalk gateways do not have access to the contents of the packet from endpoints [they do not own] that use their bandwidth. Similarly, endpoint owners do not have access to gateway information.”

In other words, Amazon’s server will authenticate your data and route it to the right place, but the company says it won’t read or collect it. Amazon also says that it deletes the information used to route each packet of data every 24 hours, and adds that it uses automatically rolling device IDs to ensure that data travelling over the Sidewalk network can’t be tied to specific customers.

Those are good standards that should help Sidewalk steer clear of creating new privacy headaches for consumers — but as Pollard points out, it’ll be important to keep an eye out for any unexpected data consequences of such an expansive and ambitious smart home play.

How much of my home’s Wi-Fi bandwidth does Sidewalk use?

Not much at all. The maximum bandwidth of each Sidewalk bridge transmission to Amazon’s Sidewalk server is just 80Kbps. Each month, Amazon caps the total data allowance at 500MB, which the company notes is roughly equivalent to the amount of data you’d move to stream 10 minutes of HD video.

And keep in mind that you aren’t going to use Sidewalk to stream video or anything else that needs a lot of bandwidth. The signals Sidewalk devices pass back and forth are things like authentication requests and quick commands to turn the lights on, things that don’t require very much data at all.

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Ring cameras and a wide range of existing Echo devices — including every version of the ultrapopular Echo Dot — will now double as Sidewalk bridges.


Ry Crist/CNET

Which devices will work as Sidewalk bridges?

A lot of them. In fact, with the exception of the first Amazon Echo and the discontinued Echo Look selfie camera, just about every Echo device will work with Sidewalk. 

However, Amazon has clarified to CNET that the only devices equipped to send long-range, low-bandwidth signals on the 900MHz band are the new, spherical Amazon Echo smart speaker and the new Echo Show 10 smart display. Everything else only uses Bluetooth LE for short-range Sidewalk transmissions in the home. Those signals don’t extend the range of your smart home, but they help with things like simplified onboarding of new devices and keeping devices reachable when the Wi-Fi drops out.

Here’s the list of the devices that will double as Sidewalk bridges once the feature launches later this year:

It’s noteworthy that the list includes so many Echo devices, including some that date back nearly five years and te original Echo Dot. That suggests that Sidewalk is something Amazon’s been planning for quite some time — and it also means that there are already millions and millions of Sidewalk bridges installed and ready to go in people’s homes. That might even be understating it. At the start of last year, Amazon claimed it had sold more than 100 million Alexa devices.

But, again, only the new, spherical Echo and the new Echo Show 10 will include support for those long-range 900MHz signals that travel half a mile.

Also noteworthy: There aren’t any Eero devices on the list. Amazon bought the mesh router maker in early 2019 and released a new version of its mesh system later that year. This year, Amazon introduced two new versions of the Eero system, each of which support the new, faster Wi-Fi 6 standard — but none of them will double as Sidewalk bridges. 

Does Amazon Sidewalk cost extra?

Nope. It’s a free feature for Amazon device users, with no installation or subscription fees.

Can I opt out?

From the looks of it, Amazon will launch the feature with a splash screen in the Alexa app that explains what it does. You’ll be able to turn Sidewalk off from that screen, or in the settings section of the Alexa app.

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Expect to see things that typically push your Wi-Fi range to the limit, like outdoor smart lights, to join Sidewalk’s network in the coming year.


Ry Crist/CNET

What else will work with Sidewalk?

We’ll likely know a lot more about that in the weeks ahead, but judging from Amazon’s imagery, it’s safe to assume that the list will include Ring smart lights and accessories. Tile is also working on a new, Sidewalk-enabled tracker for the platform, and it’s likely that other manufacturers will follow suit with new devices of their own. Things like outdoor lights, connected car tech and smart garage openers that might typically sit on the fringes of your home’s Wi-Fi range seem like especially strong bets, but we’ll update this space as we learn more.


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Originally published Sep. 23.
Update, Sep. 30: Added clarification that only the new, spherical Amazon Echo smart speaker and the new Echo Show 10 smart display will be able to send long-range transmissions on the 900MHz.



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