Amazon Sidewalk Will Push Neighbors to Share Wi-Fi Through Smart Devices in 2021

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Amazon Sidewalk

Users of small Echo and Ring smart devices have a week to opt out

Starting next week, Amazon customers who own certain small smart devices will automatically be added to a new network that the e-commerce giant is launching to extend the range of wireless networks beyond the strictly home, say, to the yard or sidewalk.

The new program, called Amazon Sidewalk, involves sharing part of a low-bandwidth Wi-Fi home network among Amazon’s neighboring customers, so that if one device’s network goes down, it can simply connect to another nearby one. The company says this shared connectivity will help keep gadgets such as far-flung Ring cameras, lost keys connected to Tile finder — the first third-party service to join the project — and some Echo products connected.

Amazon will officially turn on the Sidewalk network on June 8 (June 14 for Tile), after which all eligible devices will be included in the program by default, except those in the homes of opt-out users. Devices that will be connected include some generations of Echo Dot and Show devices, as well as Ring Floodlight and Spotlight cameras (the full list can be found here).

In addition to expanding the overall connectivity range of these devices, Amazon said network sharing will be useful for keeping remote devices up-to-date with software and simplifying the process of setting up new devices.

Privacy and security issues

Of course, the new network has also raised concerns about the privacy and security of data transferred over the Wi-Fi network by multiple neighbors. Amazon has tried to address some of those concerns by releasing a white paper outlining exactly how it plans to protect customer information flowing through the network.

According to Bernard Wu, an analyst at Gartner Research, such transparency measures are vital for companies when dealing with the complexities of managing personal data and privacy.

“Amazon’s new program emphasizes the importance of user experience (UX) privacy in managing customer and user relationships,” Wu said in an email.

Amazon isn’t the first company to attempt a similar bandwidth-sharing network. In 2014, Comcast Xfinity launched a similar auto-choice program that allows any of the cable giant’s customers to connect to a public network in certain areas made up of allocated portions of other customers’ connections.

Compared to that program, Amazon has provided more notifications – it first sent a warning letter to customers late last year – and more transparency about security measures. However, the company still decided to make the Sidewalk program only optional, without getting explicit consent from all participating customers.

Wu believes that companies like Amazon should take whatever steps they can in situations like this to minimize the amount of data they actively collect. “Even if consent is obtained, [organizations need to] adhere to the principle of data minimization to process and retain only the minimum amount of data necessary to satisfy the intended use or use of the data specified in the privacy UX,” Wu said. “It goes without saying that any data processed should be fully protected throughout its lifecycle.”

Amazon’s ambitions lately

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said he believes intermediate-range wireless connections are an underestimated factor in accelerating the adoption of smart home devices. The company hopes more third-party developers will follow Tile’s lead and create products that are compatible with the Sidewalk network to help develop the ecosystem around it.

“It’s a whole new way of looking at intermediate-range wireless networks,” Bezos told reporters in the fall of 2019, according to GeekWire. “There are a lot of things where Bluetooth is too close in range, Wi-Fi is too powerful, and so to have something that is still low-power but has a much longer range is really a gap in the market.”

Constellation Research analyst Ray Wang thinks the launch of Amazon Sidewalk could spur a new race for the so-called “last point” of communication among tech giants like Apple and Google.

“As the tech giants double down on neighborhood connectivity and microgrids, expect more partnerships and innovation,” he said in a research note. “This latest battle for the last inch will result in just a few players creating new opportunities for connected services.”

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