At Amazon’s annual hardware event, the company revealed a new wireless standard for the Internet of Things and smarthome devices called Sidewalk. Sidewalk promises longer range than Wi-Fi and Bluetooth with lower power usage and complexity than 5G.
What Is Amazon Sidewalk?
Sidewalk is a new wireless standard that Amazon hopes smarthome and other IoT devices will use to communicate instead of Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, 5G, and the many additional standards out there. The problem with existing standards is a question of range, complexity, and power usage.
Most of the current wireless standards don’t broadcast far and are typically confined to your home. Those that can reach far distances are incredibly complex to set up. And power usage, especially with battery-powered devices, is always a concern.
Amazon says Sidewalk solves these problems. By relying on low bandwidth 900 MHz spectrum, it has longer range and better building penetration than Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. And, much like some Wi-Fi devices, Sidewalk forms mesh networks to extend that distance. The 900 MHz also benefits from lower power usage and less complexity from a cellular standard like 5G.
With the Sidewalk standard, Amazon wants to bring your smarthome outside, to the rest of the world.
A Low Power, Wide-Ranging Spectrum
Most wireless standards consumers use don’t have much range. Wi-FI, ZigBee, and Z-Wave typically reach just inside your home, and maybe barely into your yard. And even then, they often require repeaters of some sort to cover the whole home. Bluetooth’s reach is drastically shorter, sometimes measured in inches.
The good thing about Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, ZigBee, and Bluetooth is they don’t typically require much power or expensive equipment to utilize. Some of them will even do well on battery power alone.
The other major wireless standards consumers encounter revolve around their cell phones and tablets—that is LTE and shortly 5G.
These two standards have a much larger range than Wi-Fi or Z-Wave but come at a cost. The equipment to broadcast is incredibly expensive (do you own an LTE tower?), hard to maintain, and requires a vast amount of power to run. It’s not appropriate for your yard, for instance.
Amazon’s Sidewalk aims to broach the best of both worlds. The company promises the standard will use relatively low power (measured in years of battery life), yet at the same time, the network will have a much wider range than Z-Wave or ZigBee—up to half a mile. The company is accomplishing this by repurposing unlicensed spectrum, 900 MHz.
If you’re old enough, you may have already used a device that communicated with the 900 MHz spectrum—cordless phones. Amateur radios, like walkie-talkies, use the same frequency as well, and that’s precisely because 900 MHz benefits from significant range and building penetration, and low battery usage.
But unlike walkie-talkies or cordless phones, Amazon Sidewalk devices will form a mesh network, which in turn extends their range even further. The company already sent out test devices to employees and with just 700 nodes, the Sidewalk network covered most of the Los Angeles Basin area.
Wireless Devices for Outside Your Home
You might wonder, “so what?” at this point. Do we need wireless devices that reach outside the home? Amazon thinks so, and they a few compelling use cases. A sidewalk enabled contact sensor would reach your mailbox if you live on the ninth floor of an apartment complex, for instance.
If you have ever tried to take an Echo outside for a cookout or to enjoy the weather, you may have quickly run into range issues as well. Outside your home, Wi-Fi is very spotty. With a 900 MHz radio built-in, your Echo could contact a compatible bridge, which then provides access to your Wi-Fi router.
Amazon already has another product on the market that does something similar: Ring Outdoor Smart lighting. On the outside, these look like typical path lights you stick around the sidewalk that leads to the front door. But they are smarthome powered so that you can control them by voice or app.
But, as we already established, Wi-Fi isn’t a reliable connection method for devices in your yard. So the Ring Smart Lights don’t connect directly to your Wi-Fi. Instead, they have 900 MHz compatible radios. You install the lights and a bridge in your home. The lights connect to the bridge, and the bridge connects to your W-Fi.
At its hardware devices event, the company showed an upcoming pet tracker called Fetch. It looks a lot like a key fob and attaches to your pet’s collar. When the tracker leaves the predefined geofenced area, you get a notification. In theory, you could track your pet as it encounters other user’s Sidewalk devices.
Companies like Tile and Trackr have long promised crowdsourced network for finding your lost items. But the problem has always been range and having a crowd of devices to connect. Sidewalk at least solves the range issue and hopes to drive adoption better than single-purpose trackers.
Now, Amazon Just Has to Make It Relevant
All of this is a lofty hopeful promise at this point. A mesh network like Sidewalk is only as good as the number of users it can claim. The Google-backed Thread standard, for instance, holds several advantages over ZigBee and Z-Wave yet it still hasn’t seen the light of day. So it doesn’t do anyone any good—at least not yet.
Amazon says it will release an SDK next year and theoretically, any manufacturer could include a 900 MHz radio to its product and use the SDK to add Sidewalk compatibility. But, as Microsoft famously encountered with Windows Phone and apps, that doesn’t solve the chicken and egg problem. Manufacturers may not be willing to build Sidewalk devices unless consumers purchase them. But without compelling Sidewalk gadgets to buy, consumer interest might never grow.
Amazon will need to convince consumers on security too, considering the 900 MHz spectrum is easily intercepted (it needs to be to work with amateur radios). The last thing you want is someone’s walkie-talkie picking up your Fetch device signals.
If Amazon does manage to accomplish its goals though, our smarthomes might soon encompass more than just the four walls we live inside. With the kind of range and mesh networking it’s proposing, you might someday read about smart villages instead.