Back in 2019, Amazon announced a new smart home play in the form of a low-bandwidth network called Amazon Sidewalk with the intent of extending the range of smart devices and overcoming the current range limitations of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Now that the network is ready to roll out, Amazon will automatically enroll all Sidewalk-eligible devices. Customers are required to manually opt out — or agree to let Amazon share their Wi-Fi with their neighbors.
The system works by broadcasting on 900MHz radio bands, as well as using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) signals to bridge gaps in wireless coverage and extend the working range of devices beyond what our home Wi-Fi routers are capable of alone. Sidewalk-compatible devices like Tile trackers, smart lights, and smart garage door openers will be able to take advantage of this low-bandwidth, long-range network.
While Amazon’s grand idea is to create a large-scale, public mesh network that can blanket entire neighborhoods, the company is using your internet connection to do it, bringing up a number of social, technical, and security questions.
A network of networks
Sidewalk will largely be made up of what Amazon calls Endpoints and Gateways. Sidewalk Gateways (and Bridges, according to the whitepaper) are devices that forward packets between Sidewalk Endpoints and across the Sidewalk network. Endpoints, on the other hand, are devices that exist or roam on the Sidewalk network. Stitching this all together is Amazon’s Sidewalk Servers, which coordinate the Bridges and Endpoints.
Many of Amazon’s existing Echo and Ring devices will serve as Sidewalk bridges, and assuming Sidewalk is enabled on these devices, they will share a small portion of your internet bandwidth to help create the network and connect endpoints. Amazon lists examples of endpoint devices such as smart lights, smart locks, sensors, or pet trackers like Amazon Fetch.
Many Sidewalk-enabled devices acting as gateways will use Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) to connect other devices. However, certain devices — like Amazon’s 4th-gen Echo and 2nd-gen Echo Show 10 — can use the 900Mhz LoRa network in addition to Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). By using the 900MHz range, gateways can send wireless signals to devices across a much bigger area — up to half a mile, by Amazon’s claims.
The idea isn’t new
While Amazon Sidewalk has raised no shortage of security and privacy concerns, the idea of a public, low-bandwidth mesh network isn’t entirely a novel one. Comcast operates its Xfinity Wi-Fi Home Hotspot service by leveraging an additional signal from the Xfinity gateways of participating broadband customers. Much like Amazon is doing with Sidewalk, Comcast automatically enrolls customers into this service by default.
A similar idea, albeit much larger in scale, came from Sidewalk Labs, the smart city subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet. Sidewalk Labs had ambitious plans for its Quayside project, which would have overhauled a swath of Toronto into a smart city district. However, Sidewalk Labs scrapped its plans for the Quayside project in Toronto as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
There’s also Fon, a company that runs a crowdsourced Wi-Fi network through Fon Spots, which are created by dual-access Fonera routers that broadcast two separate Wi-Fi signals; one for private use, and one to share publicly. More recently, there’s Helium, a decentralized peer-to-peer wireless network that uses Helium’s blockchain technology and specialized hotspots. Users who become network operators and provide wireless coverage for Helium are rewarded with Helium’s cryptocurrency.
With Amazon just beginning to roll out its Sidewalk network, the jury is still out and just how well it will work. However, for the opportunity to use and contribute to a public mesh network that can potentially enhance device functionality, Amazon is making some big asks.
Namely, there are the obvious privacy and security implications. Amazon, a company that already has troves of data regarding its customers’ shopping habits and powers a sizable portion of the internet through Amazon Web Services, is putting itself at the center of even more data, even if it can’t see exactly what your smart devices are sending.
Amazon already has a checkered history with privacy, considering the company only just stopped selling its controversial facial recognition technology to police a year ago. Additionally, the Amazon-owned Ring continues to face mounting criticism regarding its police partnerships that allow for the sharing of Ring doorbell video footage without the use of warrants.
Amazon’s aforementioned whitepaper details how it will handle customer data, which includes encrypting data, using rolling device IDs, and deleting the metadata needed to route packets every 24 hours.
How to opt out
If all of this isn’t for you, or if you’d rather wait and see what happens first, you can opt out. To disable Sidewalk in the Alexa app, open the app and go to More > Settings > Account Settings > Amazon Sidewalk. Under the Amazon Sidewalk option, switch the toggle to disabled.
The process is similar in the Ring app. To disable Sidewalk for Ring devices, open the Ring app and go to Menu > Control Center > Amazon Sidewalk. Once there, switch the toggle to disabled.