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IoT

Amazon Sidewalk quietly walks on

Almost a year after it became a silent presence on Amazon devices in people's homes, Amazon Sidewalk remains a mysterious mesh network.

This low-powered, wide-area wireless network probably covers an enormous part of the US, considering that when Amazon announced the Sidewalk protocol in September 2019 it said Sidewalk coverage already permeated the Los Angeles basin. But no coverage maps have surfaced.

Amazon made Sidewalk the default on its Echo, Ring and other connected-home devices, with a consumer opt-out available in the settings of its Alexa and Ring apps. But we can only guess how many people have opted out.

And since Sidewalk started going live in customer hardware, the network has started carrying traffic for such third parties as Tile. But none of them seem ready to speak about what exactly Sidewalk has done for them.

So for many consumers, the answer to "Sidewalk?" might as well be "side what?"

Quiet but widespread

"A lot of people might not even know it's there," said analyst Carolina Milanesi, president and principal analyst of Creative Strategies. "It's not like Alexa, where you see a prompt for it."

But Amazon also built Sidewalk to be unobtrusive in daily operation. The Sidewalk network – which relies on Bluetooth Low Energy for short-range communication, 900MHz LoRa or frequency-shift keyring over longer distances – is set to max out at 80 Kbit/s on any Amazon device operating as a Sidewalk "bridge." And Amazon caps Sidewalk's per-customer data usage at 500MB a month.

Amazon did notify customers about Sidewalk and it gave them opt-out instructions. But the shared network service was turned on without customer permission, a move that still draws complaints.

"I think there's value in the Sidewalk concept," said analyst Mark Vena, president and CEO of SmartTech Research. "The problem is that Amazon conducted a Biblically disastrous rollout of this."

He added that Amazon "would have really put themselves in a much better position" if they'd made Sidewalk opt-in.

"I was very critical of their rollout," emailed Jennifer King, a privacy and data policy fellow at the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence, adding that she remains uneasy about it. "I have deep concerns about their practices."

(Privacy advocates point not just to the enormous amount of data Amazon collects about the tastes of its customers, but to its late adoption of such common trust-building measures as releasing transparency reports documenting how it responds to government requests for that data; Amazon's reports remain remarkably thin compared to those of the other tech giants.)

Amazon did not answer a question about its Sidewalk opt-out rate but provided a statement attesting to Sidewalk's "strong coverage across major US metro areas." It did not include any individual user success stories, because Sidewalk's encryption and data-minimization techniques obscure those details.

Amazon's efforts to build more privacy into Sidewalk's architecture have drawn compliments; Milanesi, for example, applauded Amazon's explanations of Sidewalk's privacy defaults, calling it "very transparent" in its documentation.

No security vulnerabilities seem to have been reported for Sidewalk thus far – the major criticism made in a report from Cato Networks released this summer was that IT admins would struggle to keep track of all the Sidewalk devices in an enterprise.

Amazon's initial sales pitch for Sidewalk included a detailed white paper on its privacy and security features but suffered further from a lack of specific upsides for customers, leaving too much to their imagination.

A partner opportunity

The Seattle tech giant filled in some of those blanks in early May when it announced a first set of partners that would use Sidewalk's shared bandwidth for their own services: San Mateo, California, Tile; CareBand, a Chicago developer of senior-care systems; and Level, a smart-lock firm in Redwood City, California.

The Tile integration seems particularly significant: Expanding the area in which these device-tracking fobs can phone home can address a competitive disadvantage Tile faces against Apple's AirTags, which can tap into Apple's vast Find My network. But with Tile's Sidewalk integration only live since June, Tile isn't ready to talk details yet.

"It's been going well, but I can't share any specific numbers," emailed Mira Dix, a Tile spokesperson.

One analyst wondered how many Tile owners know of this new connectivity. "Sidewalk is still mostly promise, and I'd be shocked if most Tile buyers are aware of the partnership," emailed Avi Greengart, president and lead analyst at Techsponential.

In an email, CareBand CEO Adam Sobol also said it was too soon to talk, adding "There should be more news in Q1/Q2 or next year."

Level did not respond to a request for comment.

In September, Amazon announced a fourth partnership with Life360, a San Francisco firm that provides family-safety tools.

Vena, of SmartTech Research, suggested more partnerships along the lines of the Tile deal would be in order and suggested one in particular with another vendor of device-tracking fobs.

"I think you might see them partner with Samsung," he said. "I think that would make logical sense."

Milanesi, meanwhile, suggested watching to see hyperlocal use cases get built out.

"Instead of thinking about a neighborhood, you can think about a campus or a large manufacturing facility or whatever the case might be," she said. "The technology behind it might be used in different ways."

But all of these analysts agreed that Amazon is overdue to try some actual persuasion.

"The idea that Amazon is building a crowdsourced network would be a lot easier for consumers to accept if Amazon could show concrete benefits to Echo owners," Greengart, of Techsponential, said. "People are happy to participate in crowdsourced systems, like Waze's traffic data, when the benefit to the user is clear."

— Rob Pegoraro, special to Light Reading. Follow him @robpegoraro.

[Ed. note: This article was updated on Nov. 7 to make it clear that Amazon did notify existing Ring and Echo customers with eligible devices about Sidewalk. They were able to opt-out once the network had been turned on.]

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