Amazon Sidewalk

Andy Slote - Director of Customer Success for ObjectSpectrum

November 1, 2023

Implementers of the Internet of Things have many choices at each level of the technology stack. One of the most significant is connectivity. Analysis of the use case, venue, distance requirements, and other attributes help make the decision. The “holy grail” would be the ability to connect everywhere all the time, but no single option has met that lofty goal.

For the last few years, Amazon has been rolling out Sidewalk, their approach to creating expansive coverage for specific use cases.

Capitalizing on the high volume of Amazon devices installed, the company has primarily relied on creating a sensor network where data rides on the Internet connections of those using Amazon products like Echo Smart Speakers, Ring Cameras, and Ring Doorbells. Yes, they are actually leveraging the product you paid for and installed at your home or business to process sensor data from someone else’s IoT device using your Internet connection. But, by the same token, your devices are also benefiting from the connectivity provided by your neighbors’ devices.

The chosen protocol for the Sidewalk network is LoRa. Short for “Long Range,” LoRa effectively connects over long distances, delivering a 5 to 10 kilometer reach with even greater range in favorable conditions such as flat terrain that has little to no obstructions. LoRa is perfect for battery-powered devices transmitting small data packets like temperature, humidity, location, etc. Long battery life is also a feature, achieving years of life on a single cell for devices reporting data infrequently (every 15 minutes, for example). To enable the Sidewalk capability, Amazon ships every Echo, Ring, etc., with a LoRa wireless module installed that, according to their website, “can connect devices up to a half a mile away.”

Sidewalk also supports Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) as an alternative method of connecting devices at relatively short ranges. Either BLE or LoRa can be used to communicate, even in combination, depending on what devices are “discovered” and how far apart they are. BLE was probably included because many of these devices already have a BLE radio for other purposes, like provisioning the device using a smart phone. So allowing Sidewalk to leverage the BLE radio was essentially a free add on.

Many in the IoT world are familiar with LoRaWAN technology. Although LoRaWAN is built on LoRa, it is not the same. The technical aspects of the differences are not the subject here, but it is important to note that the considerable ecosystem of off-the-shelf LoRaWAN products won’t work on Sidewalk. While there are in fact radio modules starting to emerge that include both LoRa (and BLE) as well as LoRaWAN capability that will specifically work with Sidewalk, Amazon is banking on the tech community to create new modules and devices that support the Sidewalk flavor of LoRa.

So, what is the point of rolling out another connectivity option that needs a critical mass of adopters to succeed? One of the primary reasons is the ability to grow expansive coverage quickly without a massive investment in network gear. Every active Amazon device is a potential network node with an already available path to the Amazon cloud (AWS, or Amazon Web Services). With this widespread network availability, Amazon hopes to spur tech companies to build devices and software that leverage it.

Using a customer device and Internet connection in this manner is not without controversy. In an attempt to address this concern, a customer can opt out of participating in Sidewalk by changing device settings, but critics say that an explicit “opt-in” is the more ethical way to operate. When using the customer’s bandwidth for free, the network only supports devices creating small packets of data, and the frequency of use for a particular device and connection should be low due to the vast embedded base of Echo, Ring, and other units. Amazon addresses these concerns and others, like privacy and security on their website.

The nature of this type of network, where a community provides much of the infrastructure, can present problems for quality of service and support. It’s difficult to guarantee a level of coverage or commit to processing all data from the point of origination to the cloud. If a company releases a pet tracker, for example, and customers report not knowing where their dog is at a critical moment, can they quickly determine the cause? What response can they give to the customer to keep them loyal?

So, is Sidewalk the answer to the quest for a single protocol and pervasive coverage for simple IoT devices? Or is it another option among many, providing the right fit for some use cases but being totally wrong for others? At ObjectSpectrum, we see it as the latter.