Amazon’s Sidewalk Low Power WAN is a dud, despite four announced partnerships

Amazon Sidewalk, quietly announced at Amazon’s annual hardware conference in Seattle in September 2019, is a shared network that is claimed to help its devices work better. Specifically, it’s a 900MHz-based low power wireless area network (LPWAN) to connect trackers, sensors, lightbulbs and other IoT devices.  Amazon says you can use  Sidewalk to simplify device setup, find lost items, and more.  However, Amazon’s website only refers to Echo (“smart” speaker) devices as Sidewalk endpoints when BlueTooth is enabled.

Note that Amazon Sidewalk is optional and can be turned off at any time. Instructions to enable or disable Sidewalk for your Amazon devices is here. It comes at no additional cost and has a capped data usage of 500 MB per month, per account. To learn more, go to Welcome to Amazon Sidewalk. Amazon said that Sidewalk will have more range than Bluetooth and use less power than 5G.

“We’re going to build a reference design called Ring Fetch — a dog tracker that will use Sidewalk and ping you if your dog leaves a certain perimeter,” said Dave Limp, senior vice president of devices for Amazon at that conference. “This will be coming next year,” he added.  Really?

Over two years later, there are no tangible benefits, visible results or new information about Sidewalk deployment in the U.S. or anywhere else.  Sidewalk remains a mysterious mesh network with no coverage maps anywhere to be found on the website.

“A lot of people might not even know it’s there,” said analyst Carolina Milanesi, president and principal analyst of Creative Strategies. “It’s not like Alexa, where you see a prompt for it.”

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 one Amazon device operating as a Sidewalk “bridge.” And Amazon caps Sidewalk’s per-customer data usage at 500MB a month.

The fact that Amazon turned on Sidewalk without notification, much less permission, continues to draw complaints. “I think there’s value in the Sidewalk concept,” said analyst Mark Vena, president and CEO of SmartTech Research. “The problem is that Amazon conducted a Biblically disastrous rollout of this.”  He added that Amazon “would have really put themselves in a much better position” if they’d made Sidewalk opt-in.

“I was very critical of their rollout,” emailed Jennifer King, a privacy and data policy fellow at the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence, adding that she remains uneasy about it. “I have deep concerns about their practices.”

Privacy advocates point to the enormous amount of data Amazon collects about the tastes of its customers and also to its late adoption of such common trust-building measures as releasing transparency reports documenting how it responds to government requests for that data; Amazon’s reports remain remarkably thin compared to those of the other tech giants.

Amazon did not answer a Light Reading question about its Sidewalk opt-out rate, but provided a statement attesting to Sidewalk’s “strong coverage across major U.S. metro areas.” It did not include any individual user success stories, because Sidewalk’s encryption and data-minimization techniques obscure those details.  This author opted out of Sidewalk a long time ago.

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.

In May 2021, Amazon  announced a first set of partners that would use Sidewalk’s shared bandwidth for their own services: San Mateo, California, Tile; CareBand (a Chicago developer of senior-care systems); and Level (a smart-lock firm in Redwood City, California).

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Light Reading says that the Tile integration seems particularly significant “Expanding the area in which these device-tracking fobs can phone home can address a competitive disadvantage Tile faces against Apple’s AirTags, which can tap into Apple’s vast Find My network. But with Tile’s Sidewalk integration only live since June, Tile isn’t ready to talk details yet.”

“It’s been going well, but I can’t share any specific numbers,” Mira Dix, a Tile spokesperson, emailed Light Reading.

One analyst wondered how many Tile owners know of this new connectivity. “Sidewalk is still mostly promise, and I’d be shocked if most Tile buyers are aware of the partnership,” emailed Avi Greengart, president and lead analyst at Techsponential.

CareBand CEO Adam Sobol also said it was too soon to talk, adding “There should be more news in Q1/Q2 or next year.”

In September, Amazon announced a fourth partnership with Life360, a San Francisco firm that provides family-safety tools.  Vena, of SmartTech Research, suggested more partnerships along the lines of the Tile deal would be in order and suggested one in particular with another vendor of device-tracking fobs. “I think you might see them partner with Samsung,” he said. “I think that would make logical sense.”

Ms. Milanesi suggested watching to see hyperlocal use cases get built out. “Instead of thinking about a neighborhood, you can think about a campus or a large manufacturing facility or whatever the case might be,” she said. “The technology behind it might be used in different ways.”

Analysts all agree that Amazon is overdue to persuade its customers to use Sidewalk.

“The idea that Amazon is building a crowdsourced network would be a lot easier for consumers to accept if Amazon could show concrete benefits to Echo owners,” said Greengart of Techsponential. “People are happy to participate in crowdsourced systems, like Waze’s traffic data, when the benefit to the user is clear.”

Author’s Note:

While not a Sidewalk user, I actively use many other Amazon devices (I have 3 echo “smart” speakers, 3 fire tablets, 2 fire tv sticks, a Toshiba Fire TV, and a Kindle eReader in my home).

In over 60 years of using tech devices, I have NEVER had as many PROBLEMS with the Fire TV/stick and Alexa on Echo devices.

The Fire TV/Fire TV stick issues seem to be due to very badly written Fire OS code (updated several times per week), while the Alexa issues are due to terrible voice recognition (which has incredibly deteriorated over the years, i.e. machine UNLEARNING) and back end communications failures (where the connection between the Amazon compute server terminating Alexa voice recognition loses the connection to an Amazon music server or 3rd party server (e.g. Sirius XM, Pandora, Spotify, etc).

The customer feels helpless as there is no serious Amazon tech support to resolve any of these problems. These problems have nothing to do with WiFi, Internet download speed/latency, IP address, etc. Yet Amazon tech support people always deflect blame for their bad software to your WiFi/Internet connection.