Amazon has had its sights set on the smart home — but now the online mega-retailer is thinking bigger, and envisioning entire smart neighborhoods. First announced , the effort is called , and it uses a small fraction of your home’s Wi-Fi bandwidth to pass wireless low-energy Bluetooth and 900MHz 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 helping things like outdoor smart lights stay connected when your Wi-Fi can’t quite reach them, that’ll help things likestay in touch if you drop your wallet while you’re out on a walk, or if your dog hops the fence.
Maybe most noteworthy of all is that, for a lot of us, Amazon Sidewalk won’t require any new hardware. Instead, it’ll arrive as a free software update to the Echo speakers and Ring cameras people already have in their homes. That means that the infrastructure is already in place for Sidewalk to be a robust, large-scale network right at launch — and it also means that you’ll soon see it pop up as a new feature in your Alexa app (and yes, you’ll be able to turn it off).
We’ll likely learn a lot more about Sidewalk on Thursday, whenthat we’ll be covering right here on CNET. 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 BLE and 900MHz signals. Those kinds of low-energy signals can’t carry much data at all, but they can travel great distances.
Amazon claims that the 900MHz band, which is the same band used for amateur UHF radio broadcasts, allows a range of up to half a mile. So, if you have an Echo speaker or a Ring camera in your home that works as a Sidewalk bridge, 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 Sidewalk bridge.
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).”
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. This week, 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. 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 say 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.
Which devices will work as Sidewalk bridges?
A lot of them, as a matter of fact. Here’s the list of the ones that will work once Sidewalk launches later this year:
It’s noteworthy that the list includes so many Echo devices, including some that date back nearly five years, including the very first Echo Dot. That suggests that Sidewalk is something that 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.
Also noteworthy: There aren’t any Eero devices on the list.and released later that year. New versions of that router are tomorrow, too — but it doesn’t sound like any 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.
What else will work with Sidewalk?
We’ll likely know a lot more about that after Thursday’s event and the weeks that follow it, 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.