It turns out I have a low-power, low-bandwidth, long-range IoT network all around me, ready to wait for my smart gadgets to jump on it. Today, Amazon revealed just how far its Sidewalk IoT network penetrates the average American neighborhood.
The company’s first Sidewalk coverage map claims that more than 90 percent of the US population has access to the now public network (it is limited to the US only). Make use of one Test kit for sidewalk developers provided by Amazon, I drove across my town to confirm this data, and after three days of traveling more than 40 miles, I found that connectivity was surprisingly strong in my corner of South Carolina, even in the wilderness of a national forest.
Amazon released this data in collaboration with the official opening of Sidewalk for developers. First announced in 2019, Amazon sidewalk is a new low-power, wide-area network (LPWAN) that Amazon believes will enable the next wave of connected devices. It’s not designed to replace mobile data for high-bandwidth devices, but to be used in place of expensive LTE or 5G connectivity on gadgets that don’t need that much data and where it’s excessive to pay $10 or more per month pay for data.
Currently, Sidewalk exists primarily to help Ring cameras send motion alerts even when they’re offline, and to enable Level smart locks to connect to the internet without the need for battery-draining Wi-Fi radios. Amazon also developed some early partnerships, including with CareBand, which has developed a wearable health tracker. Now Amazon wants others to build devices that use the free network.
All you need to do is request a test kit – a small gray wireless device with Ring branding on it – gauge whether the connectivity in the area where you want to deploy your product is sufficient, and you can start building. Nordic, Silicon Labs and other silicon companies now have SDKs and HDKs available, and AWS IoT Core for Sidewalk provides a one-stop shop for connecting devices. While only the AWS cloud service can directly receive the data sent through Amazon Sidewalk, developers are not required to use the AWS cloud service for their device data, according to Limp.
“I want someone to build me a long-range meat thermometer.” – Dave Limp
What type of consumer IoT devices can benefit from Sidewalk? Think dog trackers, package trackers, soil moisture sensors, weather stations, leak sensors, letterbox sensors, pill bottles, solar panel controllers, garage door controllers, and anything else that doesn’t always live somewhere Wi-Fi is a given.
“I want someone to build me a long-range meat thermometer,” says Dave Limp, SVP of devices and services at Amazon. “I’ve been through so many things that fail. You know, you’re in South Carolina; overcooked pork leg is not what you want.
As someone who has indeed tried smoking pork on a plugged-in stove in my backyard, I can empathize with the frustrations of trying to stick to a bar of WiFi while enjoying the outdoors. There are many use cases in the smart home where a network like this makes sense. But the biggest benefit will probably come from the dynamic coverage that Sidewalk can provide.
As you can see on my map, I drove around while connected to Sidewalk, illustrating how moving devices, such as dog trackers and package trackers, could be monitored through Sidewalk, bridging the gap between the smart home and the smart city . However, Amazon tells me there’s no update on the Ring Fetch dog tracker that was announced when Sidewalk first debuted.
What is Amazon Sidewalk?
The Sidewalk network is designed as a long-distance shared community network. It works via three existing wireless radio technologies: Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) for short ranges, LoRa for long ranges and frequency shift keying at 900 MHz. These frequencies can connect to the internet through any nearby Sidewalk gateway — which currently includes Echo Show 10, Echo, Echo Dot smart speakers, and wired Ring floodlight and floodlight cameras, as well as a small number of commercial-grade bridges. Sidewalk sucks a small amount of bandwidth from the internet these devices are connected to so it can send its low data messages. Yes, it uses your internet connection – hence the word ‘community’.
It’s kind of genius and also literally something only Amazon could do on this scale. What other company has thousands of connected devices in people’s homes? When Amazon first launched Sidewalk on its devices, it turned on automatically — which wasn’t a good move. The response was fierce, and Amazon quickly rolled out the ability to disable participation in the network. If you now buy a new device that can be a Sidewalk bridge, you can choose to sign up.
It’s kind of genius and also literally something only Amazon can do
“User adoption of Ring and Echos is very high,” says Limp. “Because Ring has real value that it adds right away. You can get a motion alert without always having Wi-Fi.” If your Ring camera loses Wi-Fi, it can still send you alerts via Sidewalk by connecting to a nearby bridge that’s still online. I personally tested this and it works.
Sidewalk was originally developed as a solution to connection issues with the Ring Video Doorbell. Since the company’s smart doorbells are placed outside homes, often with brick or plaster in between and a Wi-Fi router, Amazon found that no matter how good the antenna, they would still miss notifications. “We have devised a protocol internally [to solve this]and a few years ago we announced our intent to bring that out and call it Sidewalk,” says Limp.
Last year, when Sidewalk was turned on, Limp said there were more than a billion instances where Sidewalk was able to deliver a notification to Ring customers that they would have missed without it. “We were able to send those notifications over this low-bandwidth backhaul network, and the customer was still notified that something had happened so they could check when things came back online,” he says . Amazon says Sidewalk won’t snoop your devices’ data — you can read more about it Sidewalk’s privacy and security claims here (PDF).
Sidewalk could bridge the gap between the smart home and the smart city
A few companies are already working with Amazon to develop Sidewalk-compatible products. New Cosmos announced this today Denova Detecta battery operated natural gas alarm; Primax launches Woody, a smart door lock; and Netvox has a new multi-sensor that combines air conditioning monitoring, water leak detection and status monitoring. These products do not require users to own an Amazon Sidewalk Bridge; they could use Sidewalk connectivity from any bridge in the area.
As for where Sidewalk fits into the new and changing smart home landscape, it’s a welcome addition, but it’s not the only option. Z-Wave has one long-distance ship that can extend connectivity to more than 300 feet, and Thread is a low-power mesh network that can extend beyond the walls of your home and into the yard or garage with enough devices. But neither offers the mobility of Sidewalk. As for Matter, Limp says Sidewalk complements the new smart home standard; Sidewalk and Matter already coexist in Amazon’s Echo smart speakers. “As a data link and transport layer, Sidewalk competes more with protocols like Wi-Fi than with Matter,” he explains. “You could theoretically port part of the Matter Standard to Sidewalk if you wanted to.” Now it gets very interesting.
Update, Friday March 31, 8:15 PM: An earlier version of this article noted that Dave Limp said that using AWS cloud services is not required to access Sidewalk. Following publication, Amazon reached out to specify that only the AWS cloud service can directly receive the data sent through Amazon Sidewalk, but developers can move that device data from AWS to another cloud service.