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Amazon Sidewalk comes to your neighborhood. Here’s what it means



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James Martin / CNET

Amazon has aimed for the smart home ever since Alexa came along ̵

1; but now the mega-retailer online is thinking bigger and envisions entire smart neighborhoods. First announced 2019, the effort is called Amazon sidewalks, and it uses a small fraction of your home’s Wi-Fi bandwidth to send Bluetooth wireless and 900 MHz signals between compatible devices over much greater distances than Wi-Fi can on its own – in some cases as far as half a mile, says Amazon.

You share that bandwidth with your neighbors and create a kind of network of networks that all sidewalk compatible devices can benefit from. Along with helping things like smart outdoor lights stay connected when your Wi-Fi is not really reaching them, it helps things like Tile tracker stay in touch if you drop your wallet while walking, or if your dog jumps the fence.

Amazon Sidewalk comes this year as a free feature for Alexa and Ring users.

Amazon

Perhaps most remarkable of all, for many of us, Amazon Sidewalk does not require any new hardware. Instead, it comes as a free software update to the Echo speakers and ring cameras that people already have in their homes. This means that the infrastructure is already in place for Sidewalk to be a robust, large-scale network right at launch – and it also means that you will soon see it appear as a new feature in your Alexa app (and yes, you will to be able to turn it off).

We will probably learn a lot more about the sidewalk on Thursday, when Amazon launches its latest devices and services at a virtual event which we will cover here on CNET. For now, here’s all we know about it.

How exactly does Sidewalk work?

Amazon designates many of its existing Echo and Ring gadgets (and probably the majority of its new devices from here) as Sidewalk bridges. This means that they are equipped to suck away a small amount of your home’s Wi-Fi bandwidth and then use it to transmit signals to sidewalk compatible devices with BLE and 900MHz signals. These types of low energy signals may not carry much data at all, but they can travel long distances.

Amazon claims that the 900 MHz band, which is the same band used for amateur UHF radio broadcasts, allows a range of up to half a mile. So if you have an Echo speaker or ring camera in your home that acts as a sidewalk bridge, you will be able to send wireless signals to sidewalk compatible devices over a large area. And if you had a sidewalk-enabled device like a tile tracker with your sidewalk bridge, you could connect to it as long as it was within half a mile of someone else’s sidewalk bridge.

With Amazon Sidewalk, data from the device goes to the application server and back via the Sidewalk Bridge (or gateway) and Amazon’s Sidewalk Network Server.

Amazon

Are there any security or privacy issues?

There is definitely a lot to think about. According to the design, smart home tech requires the user to share device and user data with a private company’s servers. By expanding the reach of a user’s smart home, Sidewalk expands its scope and introduces new possible uses. That means new features and functions, yes – but it also means you will share even more with Amazon.

Jeff Pollard, an analyst at Forrester, took the example of a dog with a tile tracking device that was pinned to his collar when describing his concerns for CNET last year.

“It’s great to get a warning that your dog has left the farm, but these devices can also send data to Amazon such as the frequency, duration, destination and route of your dog walk,” Pollard said. “It seems innocent enough, but what can that information mean to you when combined with other data? It is the unintended – and unexpected – consequences of technology and the data that is collected that often come back to bite us (excuse the dictionary). . ”

In this example, a ring motion alert passes three encryption levels on its way to the ring server. During the trip, Amazon can not see the inside of that package – only the data needed to authenticate the device and direct the transfer to the right place.

Amazon

Now that Sidewalk is preparing to roll out over Amazon’s entire user base, the company wants to get out before worries like that. This week, Amazon released a detailed white paper outlining the steps it takes to ensure sidewalk shipments remain private and secure.

“As a crowd, societal benefit, the Amazon Sidewalk is only as powerful as the trust our customers place in us to protect customer data,” Amazon writes.

For this purpose, Amazon compares Sidewalk’s security practices with postal service. In this analogy, Amazon’s Sidewalk Network Server is the post office, which is responsible for processing all the data that your devices send back and forth to their application server and making sure everything gets to the right place. But the post office is not allowed to read your e-mail – it only reads the outside of the envelope. And when it comes to your device data, Amazon says, it uses metadata constraints and three layers of encryption to create the digital version of the envelope.

“Information customers consider to be sensitive, as is the content of a packet sent over the Sidewalk network, not seen by Sidewalk,” Amazon writes. “Intended destinations only [the endpoint and application server] have the keys required to access this information. Sidewalk’s design also ensures that owners of Sidewalk gateways do not have access to the contents of the package from endpoints [they do not own] which uses its bandwidth. Similarly, endpoint owners do not have access to gateway information. ”

In other words, Amazon’s server will authenticate your data and direct it to the right place, but the company says it will not read or collect it. Amazon also says it deletes the information used to route each data packet every 24 hours, adding that it uses automatically scrolling device IDs to ensure that data traveling across sidewalk networks cannot be linked to specific customers.

There are good standards that will help Sidewalk avoid creating new privacy headaches for consumers – but as Pollard points out, it is important to keep track of any unexpected data consequences of such an expansive and ambitious smart home game.

How much of my home Wi-Fi bandwidth does Sidewalk use?

Not much at all. The maximum bandwidth for each transfer of the pavement to Amazon’s pavement server is only 80 kbps. Each month, Amazon covers the total data surcharge of 500 MB, which the company notes is roughly equal to the amount of data you would move to stream 10 minutes of HD video.

And keep in mind that you will not be using Sidewalk to stream video or anything else that needs a lot of bandwidth. The signals Sidewalk devices pass back and forth are things like authentication requests and shortcuts to turn on the lights, things that do not require much data at all.

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Ring cameras and a wide range of existing Echo devices – including all versions of the ultra-popular Echo Dot – will now double as the pavement.

Ry Crist / CNET

Which units function as sidewalk bridges?

Many of them, in fact. Here is the list of those that will work when Sidewalk launches later this year:

It is remarkable that the list contains so many Echo units, including some that go back almost five years, including the very first Echo Dot. This suggests that Sidewalk is something that Amazon has been planning for quite some time, and it also means that there are already millions and millions of Sidewalk bridges installed and ready to go home to people. It may even underestimate it. Earlier last year, Amazon claimed it had been sold more than 100 million Alexa units.

Also noteworthy: There are no Eero devices on the list. Amazon bought the mesh router manufacturer in early 2019 and was released a new version of its mask system later that year. New versions of that router are is expected to debut at Amazon’s virtual events tomorrow too – but it does not sound like any of them will be doubled when the sidewalk bridges.

Does Amazon Sidewalk Cost Extra?

No. It’s a free feature for Amazon users, with no installation or subscription fees.

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Expect to see things that usually push your Wi-Fi range to the limit, such as smart outdoor lights, to join Sidewalk’s network in the coming year.

Ry Crist / CNET

What works more with Sidewalk?

We will probably know a lot more about it after Thursday’s event and the weeks that follow, but judging by Amazon’s photos, it’s safe to assume that the list will include ring-smart lights and accessories. Tile is also working on a new, sidewalk-enabled tracker for the platform, and it is likely that other manufacturers will come with new own devices. Things like outdoor lighting, connected car technology and smart garage openers that can usually sit on the edge of your home Wi-Fi range seem to be particularly strong investments, but we will update this space as we learn more.






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