Amazon has opened up its Sidewalk low power wide-area network for all developers Tuesday, touting coverage for 90% of the U.S. population. The online retailer will provide free test kits so developers can suss out where Sidewalk has coverage, and how robust that coverage is.
Amazon first talked about its Sidewalk Network in September 2019, explaining it as a network that would be able to send small amounts of data over distances of about three miles. The network piggybacks on customers’ Wi-Fi networks to to provide Bluetooth or LoRa-based connectivity. Amazon’s Echo and Ring products would have radios inside that could transmit Sidewalk signals and would send those signals to the internet using a home’s Wi-Fi network.
The goal was to build a cheap network that could provide coverage where Wi-Fi couldn’t (while avoiding the expense of cellular) and to provide a backup network of sorts for connected devices. This way, if a home’s Wi-Fi network dies, a LoRa radio nearby might provide connectivity for devices from a home where the Wi-Fi was still on.
The Sidewalk controversy
When Amazon announced more details about Sidewalk, many people were upset that Amazon would turn on the Sidewalk capability inside their Echo devices without permission. There were concerns about security and also about Amazon using a consumer’s Wi-Fi instead of investing in dedicated network infrastructure.
I’ve delved in these issues more here, but the short version is that the security Amazon has implemented is solid based on my conversations with people who have evaluated the standard. Amazon can’t see what is transmitted over the network. As for the use of consumers’ Wi-Fi networks, I get the concern, but this sort of decentralized infrastructure is a great way to build a network that doesn’t cost much to use. And the internet of things really needs a low-cost LPWAN if we want to get connected devices in more places.
And Amazon is providing Sidewalk Connectivity for free. That means we could see a huge number of devices with Sidewalk Connectivity embedded inside. The caveat for developers — and for those in antitrust circles — is that Amazon isn’t charging customers for the connectivity, but the only place that data can go from the Sidewalk Network is into Amazon Web Services’ IoT Core. So if you leave Amazon’s Sidewalk Network functionality turned on, you’re actually helping Amazon lock more people into its cloud network.
The Sidewalk experience
I’ve been testing the network on my test kit and can say that my travels throughout Seattle, and my home on Bainbridge Island, is really solid. I even managed to score a signal when I was in the ferry crossing over from Bainbridge to Seattle. But since Seattle is Amazon’s hometown, and I know several Amazon employees who live on Bainbridge, this isn’t surprising.
I did also find decent coverage in downtown San Francisco and near the airport, which again, isn’t much of a surprise. I’d like to see how far coverage extends in rural areas where there are fewer people per square mile. LoRa can send data distances of about three miles in urban areas, and theoretically up to 10 miles in flat areas where there is a line of sight between devices. But at those extreme distances, power consumption on the edge devices is going to skyrocket. Maybe Amazon will add a Kuiper satellite option when that technology launches.
Still, the potential for devices that can sit outside of Wi-Fi range in a customer’s yard, or for a company that wants to track items on a campus or well-covered city, Amazon’s Sidewalk Network will be useful. For now, the consumer use cases are getting the most attention, but it’s possible we’ll see enterprise use cases over time.
The Sidewalk partners
Amazon on Tuesday also announced new Sidewalk users including Netvox, which is a making a multipurpose sensor for enterprise or residential use; a smart door lock from Primax; and a tracker from OnAsset.
For those that want to start building, Amazon has signed partnerships with Silicon Labs, Nordic Semiconductor, Texas Instruments and module maker Quectel so developers can buy the silicon or modules and start sending data to AWS IoT Core immediately. There’s no need to set up any backend LoRa or other connectivity infrastructure. These chip partners also are supporting a software development kit that can be used to upgrade existing devices.
Getting data from device to cloud easily so businesses could use it was the raison d’etre of many failed IoT platforms over the last decade. These companies failed because connectivity was still costly, and because it was difficult to get the hardware, connectivity and cloud pieces to work seamlessly together. Amazon has solved the expense problem by using a decentralized unlicensed network that relies on consumer Wi-Fi networks for backhaul. It’s solving the difficulties associated with integrating the hardware and the cloud by limiting the options to AWS.
We need more LPWANs, so I’m excited to see that Amazon’s Sidewalk Network is finally live for all. But developers need to read the fine print and understand their use cases before they start building. So grab a test kit and see if this is a good option.