With little fanfare, Amazon this Tuesday rolled out a feature called Sidewalk that the company announced back in 2019. Sidewalk creates and connects a network between Amazon’s smart home devices that can allow devices to “talk” to each other across fairly long distances. Sidewalk extends your own Wi-Fi network, useful if a device such as a smart floodlight is just out of reach of your router, and can help users locate lost devices outside of their own home. Amazon wants to make not only your home but your neighborhood smart.
Some privacy concerns have been raised in various news outlets, but their fears are not based on fact. Let’s take a look at how Sidewalk works and you can decide for yourself.
Amazon Sidewalk is a crowdsourced service in which you contribute a bit of bandwidth and then benefit from the expanded network. It uses wireless low-energy Bluetooth and 900-megahertz radio signals to pass data between compatible devices called Sidewalk Bridges across distances up to half a mile. Devices include many Echo devices (even the 5-year-old original Dot), Ring Floodlight Cams, Ring Spotlight Cams and Tile trackers, which pool a small bit of their bandwidth to create a shared network. Amazon Sidewalk uses Bluetooth, the 900 MHz spectrum (formerly used just for narrowband land mobile radio communications by land transportation, utility, manufacturing and petrochemical companies) and other frequencies.
In addition to extending coverage, Sidewalk Bridges will also automatically try to reconnect a device to your router should a connection drop. For some Ring units, you can continue to receive motion alerts from your Ring Security Cam. There is no fee for using Sidewalk; it is included in recent device system updates and will be included in new smart home devices. That means there is nothing you have to do, no hardware add-ons to buy or fees to pay to participate in the network.
Red flags have been raised around Sidewalk’s impact on personal wireless bandwidth and data usage. Amazon stated the maximum bandwidth of a Sidewalk Bridge to the Sidewalk server is 80 Kbps, which is about 1/40th of the bandwidth used to stream a typical high-definition video. When you share your Bridge’s connection with Sidewalk, total monthly data used by Sidewalk, per account, is capped at 500 MB. To put that into perspective, most home internet plans include over 1,000 GB of data and some, like Verizon FIOS and Google Fiber, are unlimited.
Another concern revolves around sharing your own Wi-Fi bandwidth with others. Will it slow my current internet speed? Can anyone just hop on my Wi-Fi? The answer to the first question depends on how many neighbors and passersby are using Sidewalk. It’s true that when they’re in range, other people’s Sidewalk-enabled devices can connect to the cloud through the Sidewalk bridges in your home. However, that will only use a tiny sliver of your bandwidth with the data cap listed above. And this bit of bandwidth can only be used for Sidewalk connections. Outside devices cannot join your home network.
Further, these people won’t be able to see or access your actual network or devices. The Sidewalk security model has several layers including device authentication of all network participants and multiple encryption layers at all points in the transmission of data. In fact, Amazon cannot see any information inside the data packets sent by your devices other than the data needed to authenticate the device and route the transmission to the right place. Amazon also says it deletes the information used to route each packet of data every 24 hours, and uses automatically rolling device IDs to ensure that data traveling over the Sidewalk network can’t be tied to specific customers.
Now what? For those with compatible devices, you’ll find Amazon Sidewalk in your Alexa app settings. While the feature is on by default, note that there is a separate Community Finding feature that is disabled by default. When you toggle it on, that’s when Sidewalk shares the approximate and anonymized location of your home to assist someone looking for a Sidewalk-enabled tracking device that’s near you. If you’re a pet owner and have a Tile on your pet’s collar, you can understand how helpful the network could be in reuniting you and your pet. And of course, you can disable Sidewalk altogether if you decide it’s not for you.