Amazon lights up Sidewalk, its wireless IoT network
Echo speakers and devices from Tile, Level and CareBand will join Sidewalk in June.
Amazon is getting ready to light up a vast network of tens of millions of devices to power wireless networking for the Internet of Things: The company will add compatible Echo speakers and Echo Show smart displays to its Sidewalk network on June 8, and will begin onboarding select third-party device partners the following week.
Starting June 14, Sidewalk will provide additional connectivity to Tile trackers, making it easier to locate lost items within and outside of the home. Sidewalk support is also coming to Level smart locks by late May, and Amazon is beginning a pilot program to provide Sidewalk connectivity to CareBand's elder care wearable devices.
All of this represents the biggest expansion of Sidewalk since Amazon first unveiled it in September 2020. The launch of Tile on Sidewalk also shows why consumers may embrace the technology, and the CareBand pilot foreshadows the potential for applications that go far beyond the home.
Amazon's pitch for Sidewalk is quite simple: As our homes become more connected, we are quickly, and often quite literally, discovering the limits of existing networking technologies. Bluetooth, for instance, only reaches a couple hundred feet. In the case of Tile's Bluetooth trackers, this means that a phone has to be within reach to find a lost item. If you dropped it in a far corner of your yard, you may have to go on a bit of a treasure hunt.
By adding Sidewalk support to Tile, that very same tracker may still be discoverable, provided that someone in your neighborhood is using an Echo speaker. Amazon's smart speakers will double as Sidewalk gateways going forward, and effectively form a neighborhood network that can be used to discover Tiles, or provide connectivity to other Sidewalk-compatible gadgets. "You don't need the phone in the vicinity," Tile CEO CJ Prober said.
This way, it won't matter whether someone lost their Tile-equipped keys at home, in their yard or during an evening walk. "An Echo device can act as an extension of the Tile network," Sidewalk GM Manolo Arana said.
Adding Sidewalk support also allowed Tile to improve the in-home experience, Prober explained. When someone previously asked their Echo speaker to locate their Tile tracker, the speaker had to send that command to Amazon's cloud, which would forward it to Tile's servers, which then sent a request to the user's phone, which ultimately pinged the Tile tracker. Now, the Echo directly connects to the Tile via Bluetooth. And if consumers own multiple Echo devices, Alexa can even tell them which one is nearest to the item they are looking for. "It's kind of a magical experience," Prober said.
The idea of a shared network to discover Tile trackers isn not entirely new. Tile already uses the phones of all of its users to discover trackers, and the company struck a partnership with Comcast to use its gateways and set-top boxes as similar gateways for its own Tile network. However, the addition of millions of Echo speakers adds many more endpoints, vastly increasing Tile's coverage. "It's quite a significant expansion of our network," Prober said.
If consumers don't opt out of Sidewalk, that is. Critics have panned the technology as a "security nightmare" ever since Amazon first introduced Sidewalk; the company has countered that by publishing details about Sidewalk's security architecture, which includes multiple layers of encryption and frequent device ID changes to thwart any tracking and surveillance attempts. "We want to be clear up front about what we are doing," Arana said.
"Privacy is of crucial importance to us," insisted Prober as well, adding that the company had turned down similar partnerships in the past when it couldn't guarantee the security of its data.
In addition to that security architecture, Amazon is also trying to woo device makers by giving them free access to Sidewalk, which in turn can help them offer cheaper devices and services.
So what's in it for the ecommerce giant? "I hope that you love your product," Arana said. Through partnerships like those with Tile and Level, Amazon's smart speakers ultimately become more useful as well.
But there may be another opportunity lurking below the surface. Both Tile and Level are using Bluetooth to connect to Sidewalk bridges; the CareBand pilot, on the other hand, makes use of LoRa, an unlicensed, low-power networking technology with a range of up to three miles in urban settings.
At this point, only a few select Echo models support LoRa. However, one could easily imagine that number to grow, perhaps augmented by third-party gateways. Sooner or later, Amazon could operate a network that covers entire cities, and effectively compete with cellular networks for industrial IoT applications.
For now, the company seems content just simplifying IoT for consumers. Arana said that he very much looks forward to getting rid of a bunch of network extenders for connected devices around the home. "I'm running out of sockets for bridges in my house," he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Level made security cameras, while the company actually makes smart locks.
Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.