Amazon is coming for the world of cellular operators and providers of Low-Power Wide-Area Networks (LPWANs) such as Helium, Senet, and Sigfox with its Sidewalk network for connected devices. At the Silicon Labs Works With event on Thursday, Ring CEO and Founder Jamie Siminoff gave a little more detail on the wireless mesh network Amazon announced last September.
During the September 2019 presentation, Amazon introduced Sidewalk, a wireless protocol it was building within Ring to help connected devices outside of the home. Because Wi-Fi didn’t always provide enough coverage at the edge of a property, where someone might want to place Ring cameras or security lights, Amazon used the existing unlicensed 900 Mhz spectrum to build a proprietary, secure, mesh network.
The protocol supports low data rates, can extend over half a mile, and doesn’t require a lot of power. At the time of the launch, Amazon’s Daniel Rausch told me that the Sidewalk radios were already in existing Ring products. He also said that a then-current meshed network of 700 devices in the LA Basin had managed to create a network dense enough for Amazon to build a dog-tracking device called Fetch to show developers how the protocol worked.
Siminoff didn’t provide much more in the way of details this week, but did share what Amazon hopes to accomplish. Essentially, Amazon wants to create a distributed, inexpensive, and shared network that developers can use to automatically get connectivity. Calling it a “10-year-plus project,” Siminoff said the Sidewalk network is built on the concept of sharing.
He used the somewhat tortured analogy of sharing a cup of sugar between neighbors to explain the idea. In the case of Sidewalk, your literal neighbors are sharing “just a cup” of their existing bandwidth (in sugar terms, not the whole bag) to provide a shared network for low-data-rate devices. I’m 100% sold on sharing my existing broadband network and using it to provide the backhaul for LPWA connectivity.
I’m already doing it with a Helium hotspot, which is a router that sits on my Wi-Fi network and provides network connectivity for LoRaWAN sensors and devices. Sidewalk appears to be trying for something similar, but instead of a hotspot it wants to embed the radios in Ring products. This is pretty smart, since my Helium hotspot costs $350.
During his talk, Siminoff said the goal isn’t to compete with anyone’s protocols, but to provide connectivity for IoT devices that work the moment they are powered on. He said other alternatives such as cellular require a subscription that most people, even well-off people, aren’t going to pay for. Those alternatives also consume a lot of battery power.
By building a shared network that is widely available, Sidewalk can change the economics of connectivity for IoT devices and enable far more of them to proliferate. Which is almost exactly the same rationale behind the creation of the Helium network and the creation of a shared Bluetooth tracking network as envisioned by Nodle.
So while I’m sure the other companies building distributed IoT networks will feel validated by Amazon’s adoption of their business models and thinking, I bet they’ll also find it harder to sleep at night knowing they’re competing against a giant.