On June 8, 2021, most Amazon smart home devices, as well as certain other connected gadgets, will join a nationwide network called Sidewalk. Here̵
What is sidewalk?
Sidewalk, announced in 2019, is a new wireless network developed by Amazon. It uses Bluetooth Low Energy in conjunction with part of the Wi-Fi radio spectrum in the 900MHz range to connect devices outside their normal range.
You may have heard of devices like smart home sensors that work with Z-Wave or Zigbee technology. These wireless protocols also work in the 900MHz range, just like old cordless phones, the walkie-talkie technology in some cell phones, and amateur radio broadcasting. The advantage of using this low-frequency band of the radio spectrum is that the signals are extremely robust and can easily move or pass through obstacles. This means they can travel a relatively long distance, unlike the newly developed 5GHz spectrum, which requires a line-of-site between towers to broadcast its signal. Devices operating in the 900MHz spectrum also consume much less energy than devices operating at higher frequencies, as well as devices using Bluetooth Low Energy technology.
So by combining the two protocols along with other radio frequencies, Amazon says it can implement a network that can connect all Sidewalk-compatible devices to create one massive network that can keep devices working more consistently and over longer distances.
“For example,” the company says, “with Sidewalk, you can continue to receive motion alerts from your security cameras even if your Wi-Fi goes down. Or if your Wi-Fi isn’t reaching your driveway edge smart lights, Sidewalk can help them stay connected. Going forward, Sidewalk will also support a range of experiences, from using Sidewalk-compatible devices to locate pets or valuables, to smart security and lighting, to diagnostics for devices and tools.”
The system works through a series of ‘bridges’, including most Echo devices and Ring Floodlight and Spotlight cameras. These bridges will act as hubs in the Sidewalk network and will communicate with energy-efficient connected devices such as Tile trackers and smart light bulbs, which the company calls “Sidewalk Endpoints.”
If you have one of these devices, you agree to share 80 Kbps of your bandwidth with the network from June 8, 2021 unless you opt out. According to Amazon, this 80 Kbps is about 1/40th of the bandwidth to stream high-definition video.
Is there a catch?
You may be wondering if there is a catch. The short answer is: sort of.
While Amazon touts the great new range and increased uptime that Sidewalk could potentially deliver, it’s important to understand that inherent in the technology is the linking of any Sidewalk-enabled device to all other similar devices. That means if you have a smart doorbell from Ring, the Amazon company, it can connect to your neighbor’s Echo Dot, which can then connect to someone’s Tile tracker as they walk by, and so on.
Contrary to the fear of WiFi theft, where someone nearby could hack into your router and stream Netflix with your signal, because the 900MHz band can’t deliver the speed of WiFi protocols like 5G, using it is pretty much limited to sensors, lights, trackers, and things that don’t require a lot of computing power, so the chances of a serious data breach are slim.
While Sidewalk won’t be sending any serious amounts of data over its previously limited pipeline, it will still be sending some data. Amazon says all data is sent in triple-encrypted packets and the company itself cannot read the data.
Simply put, it would be like figuring out what’s in an Amazon box on your neighbor’s porch without opening it. Still, Amazon (as with most tech giants) hasn’t always had the best track record of keeping user data private. Let’s not forget that the company is still primarily a giant retailer that has an interest in knowing how people behave.
Still, the company appears to be going a step further to keep Sidewalk user data safe and says it will delete the encrypted data packets every 24 hours.
“Information that customers deem sensitive, such as the contents of a package sent over the Sidewalk network, is not seen by Sidewalk; only the intended destinations (the endpoint and the application server) have the keys necessary to access this information,” the company writes in a white paper. “Sidewalk’s design also ensures that Sidewalk gateway owners cannot access package contents from endpoints (which they do not own) that are using their bandwidth. Likewise, endpoint owners cannot access gateway information.”
Another potential concern is that while your bandwidth “donation” to the Sidewalk network is limited to 500MB per month, you may want to opt out of the service (more on how to do that in a moment).
Which devices are suitable for sidewalks?
As of June 2021, the following devices will be able to act as Amazon Sidewalk Bridges:
- Ring Floodlight Camera (2019)
- Ring Spotlight Cam Wired (2019)
- Ring Spotlight Cam Mount (2019)
- Echo (3rd generation and newer)
- Echo Dot (3rd generation and newer)
- Echo Dot for Kids (3rd generation and newer)
- Echo Dot with clock (3rd generation and newer)
- Echo Plus (all generations)
- Echo show (2nd generation)
- Echo Show 5, 8, 10 (all generations)
- echo spot
- ultrasound studio
- Echo input
- Ultrasound Flex
At the time of writing, the only detection devices that can transmit over the Sidewalk network are Tile trackers, Level smart locks and CareBands, which are part of a pilot program to test the technology as a way to monitor individuals with dementia.
What if I don’t want to participate?
No problem. Amazon has made it pretty easy to unsubscribe from the Sidewalk network through both the Alexa and Ring apps. Your choice is always reversible and while there is a lot of hype about doing so before June 8, you can stop or start participating at any time through the apps. Here’s how.
To disable the service in the Alexa app, tap More in the lower-right corner, then Settings > Account Settings > Amazon Sidewalk. When you’re on the Sidewalk page, flip the toggle switch next to “Enabled” to the off position.
In the Ring app, first tap the three lines at the top left of the screen. Then tap Control Center > Sidewalk and tap the Sidewalk toggle switch. Confirm that you want to disable the service and you’re all set.
Keep in mind that very few devices actually work as Sidewalk Endpoints as of release. If you’re not quite comfortable being part of a massive network basket right now, it might make sense to disable the service and then re-enable it as it evolves and offers a wider range of benefits.