If you have an Echo or Ring device and you didn̵
What is Amazon Sidewalk?
Before we can get into whether you should turn Sidewalk on or off, it’s helpful to know what it is. Have you ever bought a Bluetooth tracker with the promise that it could help you find your lost stuff, only to be disappointed when it was out of reach (e.g. in the library) and nowhere near other tracker devices? Unless you lose your keys in your house, many tracker devices are almost useless.
But some, like Apple’s AirTags and Samsung’s Smartag+, can even send a signal to you even if you left it on the side of the road or the car shop. Those smart trackers use an ultra-wideband radio to connect to other devices, such as iPhones and Galaxy devices. That creates a much larger network so you can actually find your missing tracker.
Amazon’s Sidewalk is a take on the same idea. It turns your Echo speakers, smart screens, and some Ring devices into a bridge for a massive public network. And that’s the key word, ‘public’. It essentially shares a small portion of your network with the people around you, theoretically safe and secure. This public network has several advantages. And possibly some drawbacks.
The benefits of sidewalk
We’ve already mentioned AirTags and SmarTag+, and along the same lines, Sidewalk is good news for Tile. Remember the example where you left a Bluetooth tracker in the library and can’t find it? That’s a common scenario for Tile. In theory, if it’s close enough to someone else’s Tile tracker, it can contact you by using that person as an anonymous intermediary. In practice this rarely happened. There aren’t enough people who have Tile trackers to work out that well.
That’s where Amazon Sidewalk comes in. Soon Tile will partner with Amazon’s Sidewalk network. And if a tile is close enough to someone’s Echo or Ring device that has the service enabled, it can contact you so you can find your lost items. That should, in theory, easily overcome the low-saturation problem of Tile devices. After all, many homes have Amazon Echo and Ring security devices that work like sidewalk bridges.
It’s not just Tile that’s springing into action. Other devices such as CareBand, a wearable tracking device for children and the elderly, are exploring the implementation of Sidewalk. CareBand helps locate lost children or people with dementia who are wandering. While it supports LoraWan networks, such as the proof-of-coverage service Helium, access to Sidewalk should increase the range and probability of connecting to a network.
Even if you don’t have a Tile or Careband, you can help someone else who does. But you still benefit from it. If your Wi-Fi goes down for any reason, you’ll lose access to your Echo and Ring devices. But if someone close enough also turned on Sidewalk, your device might still work. They connect to the Internet through Sidewalk. And because Sidewalk works with a combination of Bluetooth Low Energy, 900MHz spectrum, and other frequencies, Amazon says future device configuration should be easier. Sidewalk can do the hard work of pairing your new Echo with your router.
The disadvantages of sidewalk
Of course, everything has risks, and downsides and Sidewalk are no different. You are effectively opening your network to enable Sidewalk. Amazon has built in quite a bit of security to secure access to your network through the Sidewalk protocol. In theory, only approved devices should connect and behave in approved ways.
But that sounds similar to Apple’s promise to control everything it allows in the App Store to keep users safe. No matter how hard Apple tries, every once in a while a bad app comes through. It’s not inconceivable that someone will find a way to slip through Amazon’s security. And as with other tech ventures, the moment Amazon invites a third party into the process, you lose a lot more control over your data. After all, Amazon cannot guarantee what the third party will do once the data is out of Amazon’s hands.
And Amazon likes to say that it offers you a wide public network for free, but that’s a bit unfair. In fact, you (and everyone else) give Amazon the resources for a wide public network for free. Amazon didn’t have to build or pay for towers to put radios in everyone’s homes. It wasn’t worth building infrastructure just to give it away for free.
At least it sold the hardware and borrowed the network. First you paid to put the radio in your house, then you paid to provide it with WiFi, and now you lend a small portion of that WiFi to Amazon. You may benefit from being on the road from someone else’s network, but then they paid for it.
This could potentially make you pay more. Amazon says it will try not to use much of your data by limiting the speed of Sidewalk devices to 80 kbps and limiting data usage to 500 MB per month. That’s not much. But if you’re on a limited data plan, or if your ISP limits you, every little bit counts. And possibly worst of all, you have no control over what Amazon does with your network. Amazon can run and add new features at any time without even telling you. And that’s obvious because of the way Sidewalk is implemented.
Amazon has not earned much trust here
Here we have to address the elephant in the room. Amazon didn’t actually ask for permission to put Sidewalk in your house. The company made Sidewalk opt-out, not opt-in. And it went out of its way to notify users of the upcoming change. Amazon has quietly tucked away a setting to disable it and enable it by default. Sure, you can find Amazon help pages on how to disable Sidewalk, but those are buried.
And it’s not that people can reasonably expect to suddenly host a secondary network within their personal network. If you buy a Helium router, it is for the express purpose of providing your area with a LoRaWan network. You know that Carebands connects to your network; you got into it with that intent (and you get paid in cryptocurrency). But Amazon Echo and Ring devices have been on the market for years. The first Echo was launched seven years ago. The devices clearly had one purpose (smart home voice assistant and security), which is a totally new purpose.
It’s pretty easy to see why Amazon has gone the opt-out route. If people don’t notice or don’t care, Sidewalk will be bigger. But if a person doesn’t care enough to turn something off, it’s hard to convince them to turn it on. Still, it’s not a great look. ‘Asking for forgiveness’ means knowing that what you have done is wrong. Or at least controversial. You knew you needed forgiveness, and you did it anyway.
Amazon knew someone that people wouldn’t be happy about, and it was moving forward anyway. It chose users instead of giving users a choice. And that’s never great. But that doesn’t necessarily make Sidewalk bad. Just born amid less than ideal circumstances.
Should you turn off the curb?
So that leaves us with the all-important question. The sidewalk is now there. Should you turn it off? Full disclosure here: I did. But that’s partly because I’m already participating in other similar endeavors, which I’ve embarked on of my own accord. I’m not a fan of how Amazon enabled Sidewalk. But that doesn’t mean you should disable it. My house may not host Sidewalk, but I host similar LoRaWAN networks.
Before you take out Sidewalk, ask yourself a few questions.
- Do you trust Amazon enough to lend it to your network?
- Does your network have a low data limit?
- Do you want an easy setup for your Amazon devices or do you want them to stay connected when Wi-Fi goes down?
- Do you like helping strangers find their lost things or lost people?
If you don’t trust Amazon, there’s probably nothing that will convince you to keep Sidewalk enabled, and that’s fine. You’ve probably already turned off SIdewalk, but at least you did your research first. Good for you. It makes sense to avoid unnecessary data usage for anyone on a network with data caps or throttling, especially over 5G services. You could turn it off.
But if you want an easy setup, if you want that promise that your Echo and Ring devices will still work when the Wi-Fi goes down, then it makes sense to keep Sidewalk enabled. If you want the advantage of other people’s network through Sidewalk, it’s only fair to give them the advantage.
And if you may want to help someone, even if you may never meet them, turning on Sidewalk is a pain-free way to do it. There is no wrong answer here. Do what you feel comfortable with. And if that takes Sidewalk off, check out our sister site How-To Geek. They will tell you how.