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Will Amazon Sidewalk accelerate IoT Adoption?

It has long been a dream of wireless telecom technologists to create a technology where devices can even connect to the network even if there is no direct coverage. In 3G days we used to call it Opportunity Driven Multiple Access (ODMA) but it was never standardised. Then we also have similar concept with multihop cellular network (MCN). Then you also have generic terms Ad-Hoc networks and Relays. There has been no shortage of repackaging the concept to create a network of networks.

So what exactly is Sidewalk? Quoting from this Light Reading article:

The Sidewalk network – which relies on Bluetooth Low Energy for short-range communication, 900MHz LoRa or frequency-shift keyring over longer distances – is set to max out at 80 Kbit/s on any Amazon device operating as a Sidewalk "bridge." And Amazon caps Sidewalk's per-customer data usage at 500MB a month.

Amazon did notify customers about Sidewalk and it gave them opt-out instructions. But the shared network service was turned on without customer permission, a move that still draws complaints.

Amazon's efforts to build more privacy into Sidewalk's architecture have drawn compliments; Milanesi, for example, applauded Amazon's explanations of Sidewalk's privacy defaults, calling it "very transparent" in its documentation.

No security vulnerabilities seem to have been reported for Sidewalk thus far – the major criticism made in a report from Cato Networks released this summer was that IT admins would struggle to keep track of all the Sidewalk devices in an enterprise.

Amazon's initial sales pitch for Sidewalk included a detailed white paper on its privacy and security features but suffered further from a lack of specific upsides for customers, leaving too much to their imagination.

Almost a year after it became a silent presence on Amazon devices in people's homes, Amazon Sidewalk remains a mysterious mesh network.

This low-powered, wide-area wireless network probably covers an enormous part of the US, considering that when Amazon announced the Sidewalk protocol in September 2019 it said Sidewalk coverage already permeated the Los Angeles basin. But no coverage maps have surfaced.

Amazon made Sidewalk the default on its Echo, Ring and other connected-home devices, with a consumer opt-out available in the settings of its Alexa and Ring apps. But we can only guess how many people have opted out.

And since Sidewalk started going live in customer hardware, the network has started carrying traffic for such third parties as Tile. But none of them seem ready to speak about what exactly Sidewalk has done for them.

This slightly old CNET video has a good explanation of the technology:

Tom Rebbeck from Analysys Mason wrote about Amazon Sidewalk Bridge Pro last week:

Sidewalk is Amazon’s network for connecting low bandwidth IoT devices. It uses a version of LoRa. The set up is neat — a Sidewalk gateway is included in fourth generation Echo devices and switched on by default (consumers can opt out). The more Echos (Echoes?) Amazon sells, the bigger its network — Amazon gets a US IoT network but without having to pay for it. (A challenge for Amazon may be that the number of Echos is only slowing increasing — the future growth rate is only expected to be 1.2% [link].)

The newest device, the Sidewalk Bridge Pro, allows businesses to also add network coverage where they are no Echo devices (for example in business parks).

The official blog from Amazon about the Bridge Pro is here [link]. The announcement is also covered by Protocol [link] and this piece is worth reading by anyone interested in IoT networks. It covers the Bridge Pro gateway and also looks more generally into Amazon’s motives in developing Sidewalk.

IoT Technologies Comparison (Source: TI)

Even though everyone keeps referring to Sidewalk as Mesh network, it makes sense to me that it is a star network where the devices connect to the gateway but the gateways are not connected to each other. (Mesh vs Star topologies comparison pic)

These articles from WSJ and EFF throw more light on the technology and its announcement. At present the technology seems to be only in the US but we will hear a lot more once it's rolled out in other countries.

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