As the Internet of Things became mainstream, it raised an interesting point about connectivity. We quickly realized that it wasn’t ideal to have all the light bulbs, toasters and kettles buzzing on our main WiFi networks. Nor was it practical to sign up for a cellular data plan for every tracker tag or remote sensor we wanted to use.
To solve this problem, various technology companies have developed their own low-power mesh networking solutions. Amazon’s Sidewalk network is one of the most popular in the United States. Now it’s opening it up for wider use beyond its own products, and you can get in on the action.
See you on the sidewalk
Amazon’s Sidewalk is officially referred to as a “low-power wide area network” or LPWAN. It’s not intended to provide high-fidelity video or move masses of data quickly from server A to user B. Instead, it’s designed to provide a wisp of Internet connectivity for all those little devices that just need to get online to send some of data on the place. Current applications include allowing the company’s Ring home surveillance devices to send notifications even when their primary WiFi connection is offline. Sidewalk is also used to keep Level smart locks communicating without the need for a battery-hungry WiFi connection, and to sync some brands of health trackers. The technology is currently only available in the US, having launched in 2021. A further UK launch is likely, with Amazon likely sticking to the Sidewalk name versus the more locally appropriate moniker ‘Footpath’.
The technology was initially developed by a startup called Iotera, which launched a Kickstarter in 2014 for its Iota tracking device. Iotera was later acquired by Ring, which was in turn acquired by Amazon. The basic concept behind the technology is simple. Devices like the Amazon Echo smartspeakers act as gateways to the Sidewalk network. To perform their normal functions, they are connected to a home Wi-Fi network. They then provide limited internet access to other Amazon devices via Sidewalk. Bluetooth Low Energy is used for short-range communication with Sidewalk devices. For longer distances, FSK techniques are used in the 900 MHz range, while LoRa is used to provide communication at the longest distances albeit with the most limited throughput.
Amazon device owners can turn Sidewalk off if they want, but it’s usually enabled by default. Any Sidewalk Bridge can offer up to 80 kbps bandwidth to connected devices, and Amazon typically limits any Bridge to using up to 500 MB of bandwidth per month.
The general idea of Sidewalk is to use customers’ Internet connections to create a widely accessible mesh network that is seamless, invisible, and unobtrusive to anyone. Reportedly, over 90% of the US population is within Sidewalk’s coverage area. If your area isn’t, all you need to do is plug an Amazon Echo into your home internet connection and you’re all set.
Your piece of sidewalk
Amazon has now released free test kits that allow independent developers to investigate the Sidewalk network. These consist of a small lozenge-shaped gray plastic device that can be loaded into a small cradle. The program is intended to help developers determine the level of sidewalk coverage in a given location. The device repeatedly pings your current location and available signal strength to an Amazon server, with the data displayed in a web portal.
For those looking to build Sidewalk-compatible hardware, development kits are already available from companies like Nordic Semiconductor, Silicon Labs, and Texas Instruments. Connectivity modules are also available from Quectel to get devices online. On the cloud side, devices can be managed through AWS IoT Core for Amazon Sidewalk, a useful web interface powered by Amazon Web Services. Currently, AWS is the only way to receive data from a Sidewalk device, although nothing prevents developers from offloading that data to another service for further processing or use.
Devices from third-party manufacturers are already coming to market with Sidewalk compatibility. Everything from gas alarms to smart locks and home security sensors take advantage of the low-power connection. In many cases, it could allow a device to run on batteries where previously the power demands of WiFi would have made it impractical.
If you’re working on any type of IoT device that would benefit from low-power internet connectivity, Sidewalk might be worth investigating. It comes with the caveat that the feature is tied to Amazon’s services and that the network is currently only available in the United States. For some products, this won’t be a problem. For others, the flexibility and openness of traditional Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connections may be more important. Either way, expect similar mesh networks to spring up from Amazon’s competitors as the Internet of Things moves from fad to foregone conclusion.
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