Amazon Sidewalk is about infrastructure, not intrusiveness | ZDNet
In my last column, I looked at three silicon providers developing low-power technology for the Internet of Things. But while the smart home has been the cradle of consumer IoT, it hasn’t evolved far beyond that, in part because of the high cost and power consumption of the cellular connectivity that might service consumer devices outside of the home. This has given rise to several low-power networking technologies such as LoRaWAN and GFSK that achieve longer range by operating at lower frequencies than today’s Wi-Fi.
However, these technologies haven’t been adopted as broadly as LTE or Wi-Fi. The innovative team at Helium, for example, has enabled LoRaWAN proliferation by incentivizing consumers to purchase and host their own hotspots with cryptocurrency rewards. While the company has done a good job of expanding its ecosystem in the past year and is now expanding into offloading 5G network traffic, the proposition isn’t easy to convey to everyday users. E-scooter-on-demand provider Lime has been one of the few big consumer brands to bet on Helium’s network.
Consumer IoT thus faces a classic chicken-and-egg dilemma, one that is targeted by Amazon’s new network initiative, Sidewalk. As its name suggests, Sidewalk addresses connectivity beyond the home, but not necessarily on the open road, at least initially. To do this, Amazon, like Helium, piggybacks a bit of traffic on consumers’ home networks. Unlike Helium, though, which requires consumers to purchase or build their own hotspots, Amazon can leverage select models of its mammoth installed base of Echo and Ring devices as gateways between technologies such as LoRaWAN or Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.
Sidewalk is often described generically as a Wi-Fi sharing, but this is not about having your neighbor mooch your broadband to get their Netflix on. Sidewalk connections are limited to 80 Kbps, which is about 1.5x the peak download speeds of the final generation of dial-up modems (Team X2 Forever!). And Amazon caps the monthly amount of traffic per account to 500 MB, equivalent to about 10 minutes of high-definition video.
Much of the concern surrounding Sidewalk has focused on security and privacy. However, improving the security and privacy of endpoint devices was a major part of its rationale. According to Manolo Arana, general manager of Sidewalk at Amazon, Sidewalk was developed to bring more consistency and raise the overall security level of the emerging class of IoT devices.
Arana explains, “It is very difficult to find engineering talent and capabilities for any company in device security and hardware capabilities. Not all the hardware vendors are at the same level or make certain features available. As a consequence, we end up with disparity. Are you truly who you say you are? Is someone spoofing you?” He explains that device security involves multiple features, including the certificates on the device, anti-rollback (to manage OTA updates), and secure boot. The latter is required of Sidewalk-certified products as their chipsets support it.
As my fellow ZDNet contributor Adrian Kingsley-Hughes explains in describing his decision to opt-in to Sidewalk, Amazon has developed three layers of encryption around Sidewalk’s IoT traffic. The first of these is a data layer that can be accessed only by the company deploying the application — say, a pet-finding service or a connected doorbell — that uses it. Amazon has no access to it.
This brings up another Sidewalk paradox. Simply because the technology was incubated within the company’s devices and services group that is strongly associated with Alexa doesn’t mean that Sidewalk shares its business mode or data collection practices. Indeed, while it relies on consumer devices, Sidewalk is a B2B business that has more in common with AWS, infrastructure that Amazon extends to third parties. In fact, the first Sidewalk customers — Tile and Level locks — will be using the network before any Amazon endpoint devices.
In the Amazon tradition, Arana keeps coming back to the customer. In Tile’s case, it’s easy to see how access to Sidewalk’s footprint provides a hedge in competing with the vast number of mobile devices controlled by a new competitor. And while all networks entail some security risk, Tile’s early embrace of Sidewalk represents a vote of confidence that Amazon can protect the location services company’s user data and privacy as well as speaks to Amazon’s incentive to preserve Tile’s trust. Sidewalk has also benefited from AWS’ extensive experience securing the data of some of the world’s largest enterprises.
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When Sidewalk gets turned on in select Amazon devices next week, it will mark a rare event: the near-instant activation of a new network with broad reach, one that can offer services such as item location, simplified device setup, and telematics, as well as potentially supporting whole new classes of devices focused on low-bandwidth media such as text and speech. Of course, everyone will have to decide if enabling Sidewalk is right for them. Consider, though, that Ring or Echo users already entrust Amazon with details of home conversations or images of themselves or their families.
That said, as with many novel technologies, the cautious may hold back for a while. Arana accepts this and sees it as a challenge to improve Sidewalk’s participation value over time. That could entail new services and features, but it could also simply mean proving resilience in the real world. While Arana believes his team’s work should inspire consumer confidence, he joins with the realists within Amazon and its competitors in acknowledging that the quest to improve privacy and security will never end.
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