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A new wireless standard: What is Amazon Sidewalk?



  A top view of a winding pavement with the Amazon logo above.
Wilm Ihlenfeld / Shutterstock

At Amazon's annual hardware event, the company introduced a new wireless standard for the Internet of Things and smart home devices called Sidewalk. Sidewalk promises greater range than Wi-Fi and Bluetooth with lower power consumption and lower complexity than 5G.

What is Amazon Sidewalk?

Sidewalk is a new wireless standard that Amazon Smarthome and other IoT devices want to use for communication Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, 5G and many more standards. The problem with existing standards is a matter of range, complexity and power consumption.

Most current wireless standards are not widely used and are usually limited to your home. Those who can reach long distances are incredibly complicated to set up. And power consumption, especially with battery powered devices, is always a problem.

According to Amazon Sidewalk solves these problems. Using the low-bandwidth 900 MHz spectrum, it offers greater range and better penetration than Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. And just like some Wi-Fi devices, Sidewalk forms mesh networks to increase that distance. The 900 MHz also benefits from lower power consumption and lower complexity through a mobile standard such as 5G.

With the Sidewalk standard, Amazon wants to bring your smart home outside to the rest of the world.

A Low Power, Wide -Ranging Spectrum

  A city with a representation of many connected IOT devices.
Ekaphon maneechot / Shutterstock

Most radio standards consumers use have no long range. Wi-Fi, ZigBee and Z-Wave can usually be found right in your home and may not be in your yard. And even then, they often need repeaters to cover the whole house. The range of Bluetooth is drastically shorter and is sometimes expressed in inches.

The good thing about Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, ZigBee and Bluetooth is that they typically do not require a lot of power or expensive equipment. Some of them will do well even with battery power.
The other major wireless standards that consumers face relate to their cell phones and tablets – that's LTE, and 5G shortly.

These two standards have a much longer range than Wi-Fi or Z-Wave but are chargeable. The devices to be sent are unbelievably expensive (do you own an LTE tower?), Hard to maintain, and require a tremendous amount of power. It is not suitable for your garden, for example.

Amazon's sidewalk aims to make the most of both worlds. The company promises that the standard consumes relatively little power (measured in years of battery life), but at the same time has a much greater range than Z-Wave or ZigBee – up to half a mile. To achieve this, the company is re-using the unlicensed 900 MHz spectrum.

If you're old enough, you may have already used a device that communicates with the 900 MHz spectrum – cordless phones. Amateur radios, such as walkie-talkies, also use the same frequency, precisely because 900 MHz benefits from significant range and building penetration, as well as low battery consumption.

Unlike walkie-talkies or cordless phones, however, Amazon Sidewalk devices are used to form a mesh network that, in turn, extends the range even further. The company has already sent test equipment to employees. At only 700 knots, most of the city of Las Angeles was covered by the creeks.

Outdoor Wireless Devices

  A series of smart ring lights along a walkway.
Ring Smart Lighting already uses the 900 MHz spectrum. Ring

You may ask, "so what?" At this point. Do we need wireless devices that are outside the home? Amazon is of the opinion, and there are some convincing use cases. A contact sensor that activates the sidewalk would reach your mailbox, for example if you live on the ninth floor of an apartment complex.

If you have ever tried to take an echo out to cook or enjoy the weather, you may have come across it too quickly on range problems. Outside your home, Wi-Fi is very spotty. With an integrated 900 MHz radio, your echo can contact a compatible bridge, which then allows access to your wireless router.

Amazon already has another product on the market that offers similar features: Ring Outdoor Smart Lighting. On the outside, these look like typical path lights that keep you around the sidewalk that leads to the front door. However, you have a smarthome power supply so you can control it via voice or app.

As we noted earlier, Wi-Fi is not a reliable connection method for devices in your garden. The Ring Smart Lights do not create a direct connection to your WLAN. Instead, they have 900 MHz compatible radios. You install the lights and a bridge in your house. The lights connect to the bridge and the bridge connects to your W-LAN.

At its Hardware Devices event, the company featured an upcoming pet tracker called Fetch. It resembles a key chain and is attached to your pet's collar. When the tracker leaves the predefined geofenced area, you will receive a notification. Theoretically, you could track your pet when it encounters the sidewalk equipment of other users.

Companies like Tile and Trackr have long promised a crowdsourced network to find their lost items. But the problem has always been the range and the variety of devices to be connected. Sidewalk at least fixes the problem with reach and hopes to promote acceptance better than single-purpose trackers.

Now Amazon just has to make it relevant.

  Ring Fetch Tracker in a loop.
Ring Fetch will use Amazon Sidewalk for notification support. Amazon

All this is a big, hopeful promise at the time. A mesh network like Sidewalk is only as good as the number of users it can claim. For example, Google's Thread Standard offers some advantages over ZigBee and Z-Wave, but has not yet seen the light of day. So it does not help anyone – at least not yet.

Amazon announces that it will release an SDK next year. Theoretically, any manufacturer could add a 900 MHz radio to their product and use the SDK to improve Sidewalk compatibility. But as Microsoft had known to do with Windows Phone and Apps, the chicken and egg problem is not solved. Manufacturers may not be willing to build sidewalk equipment unless consumers buy it. However, without the purchase of Sidewalk devices, consumer interest could never increase.

Amazon must also convince consumers in terms of safety, as the 900 MHz spectrum can be easily intercepted (it must be necessary for working with amateur radio equipment). The last thing you want is for a walkie-talkie to pick up your fetch device signals.

However, if Amazon manages to achieve its goals, our smart homes may well be more than just the four walls we live in. Maybe one day you will read something about smart villages instead.


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