This story was first published on Sept. 16, 2022 in my weekly newsletter.
Since Amazon announced its Sidewalk Network in 2019, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the Low-Power Wide-Area Network (LPWAN) for the internet of things. But since Amazon turned on the network in mid-2021, an influx of Sidewalk devices and widespread use hasn’t occurred. Instead Amazon is slowly adding new customers on a case-by-case basis.
But next year that should change, because the network will finally become generally available in the first half of 2023, according to developers interested in the platform. I spoke with several developers and device makers at the Silicon Labs’ Works With conference this week in Austin, Texas to discover when we might see widespread Sidewalk devices, as well as to find out how the network build-out was going.
The Sidewalk Network is designed to be a long-range, low data rate network that can open up connectivity to millions of new devices and sensors. The network will use Bluetooth and LoRa radios inside Amazon Echo and Ring security devices to connect other IoT devices over a distance.
In mid-2021, Amazon offered more details about the network and in the process, set off a firestorm of controversy ranging from fears about privacy to frustration that consumers’ home bandwidth would be used to provide Amazon with a potentially revenue-generating service. The privacy criticism didn’t seem founded, as the traffic on the network isn’t seen by Amazon. But it is true that Amazon will use the network connectivity provided by the consumer for backhaul back to the internet.
Amazon also said the service will use less than 500 MB a month, and even that number seems high given that the network can only support data rates of 80 kbps. Regardless of the controversy, I’ve been stoked to see another LPWAN that can provide long-range connectivity for devices on the cheap.
Amazon’s network will be free, but all the device data will get sent through AWS. Sidewalk, in other words, will basically be a funnel for AWS revenue. It will also broaden the number of available IoT devices able to connect to the internet. Think soil sensors, asset trackers, natural gas sensors, and so much more.
I’m excited, but I’m also increasingly curious as to when this network is going to launch broadly for outside customers. Amazon has announced a healthcare wearable from Careband running on Sidewalk. The Level lock and Tile trackers use the Sidewalk Network today. And this week, Amazon announced a new natural gas sensor on the network. But the network isn’t yet generally available to everyone.
Based on conversations I had with developers who attended the Amazon-hosted roundtables on the Sidewalk Network at Works With, I now have a few answers about what’s happening behind the scenes and when Sidewalk will be generally available. None of these developers wanted me to use their names because Amazon might penalize them.
According to my developer conversations, network coverage maps will be available in the first quarter of next year. Amazon has told developers that they will have coverage in the top 100 cities in the U.S., but has so far refused to provide any related maps. One developer told me that Amazon said it didn’t want to show gaps in coverage because that meant those areas didn’t have Ring devices, which could indicate they had less security. That’s hilarious, but I see why Amazon might not want to show rivals or analysts where its products aren’t selling well.
Developers still have a lot of questions around how the network will operate and its level of reliability. Most of the developers I spoke with were confident that the network is secure and private, meaning that Amazon and homeowners providing backhaul won’t be able to access the device’s traffic. But when asked by developers about reliability and service-level agreements, Amazon said that users can instead rely on service-level expectations. After all, this is a free network.
When asked about reliability, an Amazon spokesperson emailed me to say that customers concerned about having their devices stay up during power outages will eventually have access to the Amazon Sidewalk Bridge Pro by Ring. This device combines backup batteries with cellular LTE to allow sensors to stay connected. Amazon is testing this device at Arizona State University and in some of its own warehouses, although the bridge is not available for sale yet.
Some of the developers I spoke with were curious about how device traffic would be handled. If a customer had a leak sensor on the Sidewalk network connected to a water shutoff device, for example, would the signal to turn off the water go through a homeowner’s Echo? Could it get passed directly to the shutoff valve, which might be faster and more reliable?
Amazon’s spokesperson said via email. “Sidewalk is not a mesh network and requires a hub for communication to the cloud. However, we will be bringing certain device-to-device networking capabilities to Sidewalk for certain use cases, such as select smart lighting devices, so a group of lights can act in unison if one of them senses motion.”
These questions might seem like a lot of nitpicking for a free connectivity service, but it also seems that Amazon is pitching Sidewalk toward industrial and enterprise users. Matt Johnson, the CEO and president of Silicon Labs, which is a partner in Amazon’s Sidewalk Network, said as much during a press conference after his keynote address on Tuesday morning. In answering a question about Sidewalk he indicated that the network had seemed to shift from a focus on consumer products to more industrial and enterprise use cases.
During the keynote, Amazon Sidewalk General Manager and CTO Tanuj Mohan spoke about how companies making devices like toilets and faucets could embed leak detection technology that could share information not only with consumers but also with utilities. In fact, consumers may not get the information from those sensors at all. Later Amazon clarified that if a company used the Amazon Sidewalk Network to put a sensor in a consumers’ home, the consumer would know about the sensor and any data it shared outside the consumers’ home.
It’s likely we’ll get more answers next year if those coverage maps are shared. If not, developers have told me they expect the network to launch sometime in the first half of 2023, although that date is tentative. Silicon Labs is preparing a development kit consisting of radios and firmware that will allow a device to work on Amazon’s Sidewalk Network in the second half of 2023, which means real-world devices that aren’t made by Amazon could be available later that year, with more widespread devices available in 2024.