Amazon just announced that it is rolling out Amazon Sidewalk across the US. This is a low bandwidth network that piggybacks on users’ existing wifi to create (in theory at least) a community-wide network similar to a Bluetooth network but with much great range – ideally across the entire community. A range of Sidewalk-enabled devices (like various Echoes and some Ring cameras) will create what Amazon calls Sidewalk Bridges into the network, through which a user can access bandwidth outside the home, and also share some of their own bandwidth with the outside network.
Amazon says this will be great for two things: first, it will help devices that are operating at or beyond the effective reach of home wifi networks to work better, by borrowing bandwidth for a neighbor; think Ring sensors or cameras at the edge of a property. Second, it should enhance the functionality of tools made by its partner Tile, which can be attached to items like wallets and pets (or possibly children if you think that to be necessary). Sidewalk extends the useful range of these trackers, at least potentially.
Amazon is working hard to build its presence in IoT, especially in the home (which is why it partnered with Tile in the first place. Sidewalk could help Amazon cement an important competitive advantage; if it works as advertised, Amazon IoT devices would work in locations where others would not.
There has been the expected uproar from the privacy community. Dan Goodin, writing in Ars Technica, argued that “Consider the wealth of intimate details Amazon devices are privy to. They see who knocks on our doors, and in some homes they peer into our living rooms. They hear the conversations we’re having with friends and family. They control locks and other security systems in our home. Extending the reach of all this encrypted data to the sidewalk and living rooms of neighbors requires a level of confidence that’s not warranted for a technology that’s never seen widespread testing.”
Anything that connects anyone to anything seamlessly and automatically is of course to some degree a privacy risk, but it does seem that Amazon has thought this through; its white paper describing Sidewalk’s security and privacy protocols has not been seriously challenged. If you connect through Sidewalk to someone else’s wifi, you won’t even know whose wifi you are using. And Amazon makes it relatively simply to opt out – I did it myself using my Alexa app in with a few clicks (though it’s true that you are opted in automatically).
By and large, then, Sidewalk seems in the short term to offer modest improvements in the functionality of IoT devices near the geographical edge of your wifi network, and to add better tracking capabilities. Not really a big deal.
But it could be much more in the long run.
Sidewalk could be part of Amazon’s much deeper strategy to dominate the gateway between the home and the Internet. It already has Ring for security and Alexa for information, Amazon Music and Video for entertainment, and of it dominates online shopping. It’s quickly adding healthcare capabilities as well, which could be an important piece of the puzzle. For example, the new Amazon Care hub for monitoring elders could be extended via Sidewalk to outside the home. Amazon says that “In the future, Sidewalk will support a range of experiences from using Sidewalk-enabled devices, such as smart security and lighting and diagnostics for appliances and tools.”
Sidewalk can be seen strategically as a way to extend some aspects of Amazon’s home IoT environment out into the community. How that could be used is totally unclear right now. We don’t need to accept Ashkan Soltani’s fears that “they are also effectively becoming a global ISP with a flick of a switch, all without even having to lay a single foot of fiber.” Even an enormous Bluetooth-like mesh network is a long way from a global ISP.
Still, if I told a room full of big tech CEO’s that they could own a new network that sits on top of existing broadband and extends fairly universally across major communities across the US today and globally in coming years, and that they could launch this network overnight without spending a nickel on devices (in fact being paid for them) and without any connectivity costs, I’d be bulldozed in the ensuring goldrush. Amazon doesn’t pay big bucks for stupid people, or for projects that don’t move the needle for a huge enterprise: Much like the Kindle in 2006, Sidewalk is today a low cost project, with modest initial returns, but with massive potential upside.
written by Dr. Robin Gaster.
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