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Wow. This week, the media went after Amazon’s distributed IoT network with a vengeance. Both the mainstream news and the tech press came out in force to recommend that people opt out of Amazon’s Sidewalk Network before June 8th, when Amazon is due to turn it on. I, on the other hand, recommend that you opt in.
There are really only four reasons to opt out of the network, and after I tell you a bit more about it, I hope you’ll agree with me. If not, here’s how to opt out.
Let’s get to it.
Amazon designed the Sidewalk Network to provide a middle ground between home Wi-Fi networks and cellular coverage, with low-cost connectivity for devices that are out of Wi-Fi range but where cellular radios aren’t a fit due to their cost, size, or battery needs. These Low-Power Wide-Area Networks (LPWANs) have attempted to gain ground for a decade as companies have tried to provide coverage for IoT devices.
The biggest challenge in building these networks is cost, followed by power consumption. If someone wants to build a sensor that shares weather data a few times a day, it doesn’t make sense to buy a cellular subscription or put an expensive cellular module into the device. But if they have access to cheaper connectivity, it opens up a world of possibilities. An inexpensive radio coupled with inexpensive data would mean the cost of running the device could be much lower and built into the cost of the product, which means we could see a lot of new products.
Amazon’s first floated its Sidewalk Network in September 2019 in its presentation about Ring products. At the time, Amazon SVP David Limp said Sidewalk could benefit Ring products by allowing them to be outside of the home Wi-Fi range. A year later, as its annual device launch event neared, Amazon explained how the network would work. And it said its Echo devices, certain Ring devices (Amazon owns Ring), and its Eero routers would contain sub-gigahertz radios that would support Amazon’s new Sidewalk protocol.
The network would use the Sidewalk protocol Amazon developed over radios that use the same frequency as LoRa networks to send small packets of data up to half a mile. (Amazon has said the protocol will work over Bluetooth as well.) The mesh network would then transmit those packets back to the internet through its customers’ broadband networks. Jamie Siminoff, the CEO and founder of Ring, has likened it to borrowing a cup of sugar from your neighbor.
Amazon subsequently sent its executives out on press tours to explain the safeguards associated with the Sidewalk Network. Amazon would only siphon up to 500 MB a month (that’s half a gigabyte), they noted; in the meantime, the company released a paper explaining how the Sidewalk protocol worked from both a security and privacy perspective. It’s really important to note that Amazon cannot see the packets sent over the network, nor can it see how those packets are routed.
Ken Goto, the CTO of Level (podcast), which will use the Sidewalk Network for connectivity inside its smart lock, described the data as a wrapper, wrapped in a wrapper, wrapped in another wrapper. Level is using the Sidewalk network to avoid building Wi-Fi in its smart locks. According to Goto, the lock only has Bluetooth and a Zigbee radio, so Level can save on cost and battery consumption. But that means when the lock is outside of a phone’s Bluetooth range, it needs another way to connect back to the lock.
With the Sidewalk Network, Level’s requests can use Bluetooth to get on the Sidewalk mesh and then back to the Internet, where the app can communicate with the distant lock. This is a pretty sweet use case, and it eliminates the ever-present bridges many homes have today to connect Bluetooth devices back to Wi-Fi and the internet.
I firmly believe that this network will be an overall benefit for consumers and developers, who can add new features or build new, cheaper devices that take advantage of it. The privacy and security features are legit. Again: Amazon doesn’t see your data and it doesn’t see the developers’ data. Neither does anyone else.
In other words, I think you should opt in. I can only see four reasons that someone would want to (or should) opt out of participating.
1. You are on a metered data plan with a low data cap. For people in rural areas or those running their Amazon devices on a metered plan with a low cap, losing up to 500 MB a month might be too much to countenance (although this amount is not likely to be reached in a super rural area without a lot of participating devices).
2. You’re a control freak. When talking to a few tech nerds about this — and after getting them to admit that the security protocols looked pretty good — most came to the conclusion that they simply don’t want their home network to be used as a bridge for unknown packets. What if those packets were illegal? What if the ISP didn’t permit that type of use? I can’t argue with control freaks, but I can point out that Apple’s AirTags and FindMy network run on a similar principle of using your home or cellular data to share Bluetooth location data across an ad-hoc mesh network.
3. You want to hold out for more. Another common complaint about Sidewalk is that by automatically opting people in, Amazon is getting a network for nothing, and it’s using your bandwidth to do it. I get why that pisses people off and I don’t like it, either. But it’s doing it because it’s hard to build a wireless network and get devices on that network unless there’s already widespread coverage. And getting widespread coverage is also hard. So is asking people to opt in, because people are lazy. I think Amazon should provide a decent incentive (like a digital credit for a free movie) to get people to opt in. So if currently you’re not opposed to joining the network but want something in return, maybe if you opt out now Amazon will feel the loss keenly enough that it offers you something.
4. You hate Amazon and don’t want to give it any more power. There are plenty of people who distrust Amazon and appear to have reacted to the Sidewalk news as another opportunity to drag the company — even while still using the Amazon Alexa or Ring devices that would put them in danger of participating in the network. Whereas if you truly distrust Amazon, you probably aren’t in danger of becoming part of this network because you won’t have the devices. So if you have the devices and opt out because you don’t trust Amazon, ask yourself why you are still giving it so much space in your home and so many dollars from your wallet.
I’ve covered wireless networks for almost two decades, so I understand better than most that Amazon is usually a data-vacuuming, self-interested entity that has historically not cared about privacy or its workers. And the Sidewalk Network will benefit Amazon. But not by letting the retailer suck up your data, or device data from its competitors. Amazon is building this network because there is a genuine need for a cheap IoT network with long-range coverage.
And because that is something that we all need, I’m eager to participate. I hope most of y’all will, too.