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Amazon Sidewalk will create entire smart neighborhoods. Here's what you should know

Now live on Echo speakers, Ring products, Tile trackers and more, Amazon's low-bandwidth Internet of Things network lets your smart home stretch beyond Wi-Fi range.

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James Martin/CNET

Amazon has had its sights set on the smart home ever since Alexa came along, but now the online mega retailer is thinking bigger, and envisioning entire smart neighborhoods. First announced in 2019, the effort is called Amazon Sidewalk, and it uses wireless low-energy Bluetooth and 900MHz radio signals to pass data between compatible devices across far greater distances than Wi-Fi is capable of on its own -- in some cases, as far as half a mile, Amazon says.

When they're in range, other people's Sidewalk-enabled devices can connect to the cloud through the Sidewalk bridges in your home, creating a sort of network of networks that any Sidewalk-compatible device can take advantage of. When they do so, they'll use a small sliver of your home's Wi-Fi bandwidth, though their owners won't be able to see or access your actual network or devices. Along with making sure things like outdoor smart lights and smart garage door openers stay connected when your Wi-Fi can't quite reach them, that'll help things like Tile trackers stay in touch if you drop your wallet while you're out on a walk, or if your dog hops the fence.

Maybe most noteworthy of all is that Amazon Sidewalk doesn't require any new hardware, at least not for short-range benefits like easier device pairing. Instead, it arrived as a free software update to the Echo speakers and Ring devices people already have in their homes. Anyone with a Ring Spotlight or Floodlight cam, or anyone who gets the new, spherical Echo or the Echo Show 10 will also be able to use those new 900MHz connections to extend the range of their smart home by up to half a mile, at least with Sidewalk-enabled devices. They'll also contribute to that large-scale, out-of-home network that other users can take advantage of. 

And yes, you can turn Sidewalk off

Amazon Sidewalk is now live -- and it's enabled by default. We'll be testing it out and reporting back soon, but for now, here's everything we know about it.

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How exactly does Sidewalk work?

Amazon is designating many of its existing Echo and Ring gadgets (and presumably the majority of its new devices from here on out) as Sidewalk bridges. That means that they're equipped to siphon off a tiny amount of your home's Wi-Fi bandwidth and then use it to relay signals from Sidewalk-compatible devices using Bluetooth Low Energy, or BLE, up to Amazon's servers in the cloud.

The new, spherical Echo and the Echo Show 10 are also equipped to communicate with devices using 900MHz LoRa signals. Those kinds of low-energy signals can't carry much data at all, but they can travel great distances.

You can find Amazon Sidewalk in your Alexa app settings. The feature is listed as on by default, but there's a separate "Community Finding" feature that's disabled by default. Turning that on means that people will see the approximate location of your home if they're looking for something like a Tile tracker that's in your vicinity.

Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

"BLE is used for short range benefits such as simplifying new device setup or helping your device reconnect at short range when it loses its Wi-Fi connection," an Amazon spokesperson said. "Sidewalk uses the 900MHz spectrum to extend the low-bandwidth working range of devices, and help devices stay online even if they are outside the range of their home Wi-Fi."

Amazon claims that the 900MHz band, which is the same band used for amateur UHF radio broadcasts, allows for range of up to half a mile. So, if you get a new Echo or Echo Show 10, you'll be able to send wireless signals to Sidewalk-compatible devices across a huge area. And, if you had a Sidewalk-enabled device paired with your Sidewalk bridge, you'd be able to connect with it so long as it was within range -- up to half a mile of anyone else's Echo or Echo Show 10 if it includes that LoRa radio. 

Here at launch, the only partner devices with that 900MHz radio will be part of a pilot program with CareBand, which makes wearable sensors for patients with dementia. More will likely follow in the coming months.

Will Sidewalk let strangers onto my home Wi-Fi network?

No -- Sidewalk does use a tiny bit of your home network's bandwidth to pass the signals from Sidewalk-enabled devices up to Amazon's servers, but those devices won't join your Wi-Fi network, and their owners won't be able to see your network or any details about it. Conversely, you won't be able to see any details about the devices that are sending signals to the Sidewalk bridges in your home.

With Amazon Sidewalk, data travels from the device to the application server and back by way of the Sidewalk bridge (or gateway) and Amazon's Sidewalk Network Server.

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Are there any security or privacy concerns?

There's definitely a lot to think about. By design, smart home tech requires the user to share device and user data with a private company's servers. By extending the reach of a user's smart home, Sidewalk expands its scope and introduces new possible uses. That means new features and functionality, yes -- but it also means that you'll be sharing even more with Amazon.

Jeff Pollard, an analyst at Forrester, took the example of a dog with a Tile-type tracking device clipped to its collar when he described his concerns to CNET last year.

"It's great to get an alert [that] your dog left the yard, but those devices could also send data to Amazon like the frequency, duration, destination and path of your dog walks," Pollard said. "That seems innocuous enough, but what could that data mean for you when combined with other data? It's the unintended -- and unexpected -- consequences of technology and the data it collects that often come back to bite us (pardon the pun)."

In this example, a Ring motion alert passes through three levels of encryption on its way to the Ring server. During the trip, Amazon can't see the inside of that packet -- just the data needed to authenticate the device and route the transmission to the right place.

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Now, as Sidewalk prepares to roll out across Amazon's entire user base, the company is looking to get out ahead of concerns like those. In September, Amazon released a detailed white paper outlining the steps it's taking to ensure that Sidewalk transmissions stay private and secure.

"As a crowdsourced, community benefit, Amazon Sidewalk is only as powerful as the trust our customers place in us to safeguard customer data," Amazon wrote.

To that end, Amazon compares Sidewalk's security practices to the postal service. In this analogy, Amazon's Sidewalk Network Server is the post office, responsible for processing all of the data your devices send back and forth to their application server and making sure everything gets to the right place. But the post office doesn't get to read your mail -- it only gets to read the outside of the envelope. And when it comes to your device data, Amazon says, it uses metadata limitations and three layers of encryption to create the digital version of the envelope.

"Information customers would deem sensitive, like the contents of a packet sent over the Sidewalk network, is not seen by Sidewalk," Amazon writes. "Only the intended destinations [the endpoint and application server] possess the keys required to access this information. Sidewalk's design also ensures that owners of Sidewalk gateways do not have access to the contents of the packet from endpoints [they do not own] that use their bandwidth. Similarly, endpoint owners do not have access to gateway information."

In other words, Amazon's server will authenticate your data and route it to the right place, but the company says it won't read or collect it. Amazon also says that it deletes the information used to route each packet of data every 24 hours, and adds that it uses automatically rolling device IDs to ensure that data traveling over the Sidewalk network can't be tied to specific customers.

Those are good standards that should help Sidewalk steer clear of creating new privacy headaches for consumers -- but as Pollard points out, it'll be important to keep an eye out for any unexpected data consequences of such an expansive and ambitious smart home play.

You can find some info about Amazon Sidewalk in the Account Settings section of the Alexa app -- as well as the option to disable the feature altogether.

Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

Can I opt out?

Yes. If you've updated to the latest version of the Alexa app, you can go ahead and disable Sidewalk in the app's settings section right now. Just tap Account Settings and then Amazon Sidewalk, then toggle the slider switch.

If Sidewalk is on, you'll see another option to enable or disable Community Finding just below that slider switch. That's what Amazon calls the part of Sidewalk that shares the approximate (and anonymized) location of your home if someone is looking for a Sidewalk-enabled tracking device that's in your vicinity. Community Finding is off by default, which is good in and of itself -- and it's also nice that you can turn on Sidewalk's local Bluetooth benefits without turning on location sharing.

Just keep in mind that if the main Sidewalk toggle is on, then other people's devices will be able to connect to the cloud through your Sidewalk bridges and use your home's bandwidth when they're in range.

How much of my home's Wi-Fi bandwidth does Sidewalk use?

Not much at all. The maximum bandwidth of each Sidewalk bridge transmission to Amazon's Sidewalk server is just 80Kbps. Each month, Amazon caps the total data allowance at 500MB, which the company notes is roughly equivalent to the amount of data you'd move to stream 10 minutes of HD video. 

Still, if you have an internet plan with a very tight data cap -- a satellite or fixed wireless plan, for instance -- then you might want to turn Sidewalk off so it doesn't push you past your cap. That said, most major providers that enforce a data cap, including Comcast Xfinity and Cox Communications, will give you at least 1TB of data each month. That's 1 million MB, so if you have a plan like that, Sidewalk's 500MB max of monthly data usage probably shouldn't be a concern.

And keep in mind that you aren't going to use Sidewalk to stream video or anything else that needs a lot of bandwidth. The signals Sidewalk devices pass back and forth are things like authentication requests and quick commands to turn the lights on, things that don't require very much data at all.

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Ring cameras and a wide range of existing Echo devices -- including every version of the ultrapopular Echo Dot -- will now double as Sidewalk bridges.

Ry Crist/CNET

Which devices work as Sidewalk bridges?

With the exception of the first Amazon Echo and the discontinued Echo Look selfie camera, Amazon listed just about every Echo device as a Sidewalk bridge. Now, in 2021, the company tells CNET that it's removed some earlier-gen devices from the list -- namely, the second-gen Echo, the first- and second-gen Echo Dot and the first-gen Echo Show smart display. Per Amazon, none of those will function as Sidewalk bridges.

"We realized some of the older generation Echo devices on the original list were not Sidewalk-compatible and so we corrected the list earlier this year," an Amazon spokesperson said.  

For reference, here's the full, updated list of the devices that double as Sidewalk bridges, along with the protocols they'll support. So far, only the spherical, fourth-gen Amazon Echo, the Amazon Echo Show 10, the Ring Floodlight Cam and the wired Ring Spotlight Cam include 900MHz radios, which can connect with devices from up to a half-mile away. (BLE transmissions max out at about 100 meters.) At launch, the only Sidewalk-enabled devices that can connect with those 900MHz radios are wearable sensors from CareBand designed to track people living with dementia, but more should follow suit in the coming months.  

The list of Sidewalk bridges includes most of the Echo speakers sold in the last three years, so there are already millions and millions of Sidewalk bridges installed in people's homes. That might even be understating it. At the start of last year, Amazon claimed it had sold more than 100 million Alexa devices.

But, again, only the Ring Spotlight and Floodlight Cams and the new, spherical Echo and the new Echo Show 10 include support for those long-range 900MHz signals that travel half a mile.

Also noteworthy: There aren't any Eero devices on the list. Amazon bought the mesh router maker in early 2019 and released a new version of its mesh system later that year. Last year, Amazon introduced two new versions of the Eero system, each of which support the new, faster Wi-Fi 6 standard -- but none of them will double as Sidewalk bridges. 

Does Amazon Sidewalk cost extra?

Nope. It's a free feature for Amazon device users, with no installation or subscription fees.

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Expect to see things that typically push your Wi-Fi range to the limit, like outdoor smart lights, to join Sidewalk's network in the coming year.

Ry Crist/CNET

What else will work with Sidewalk?

In addition to the Echo and Ring devices listed above, Sidewalk will support Tile trackers and the Level smart lock at launch. Things like outdoor lights, connected car tech and smart garage openers that might typically sit on the fringes of your home's Wi-Fi range seem like especially strong bets, but we'll update this story as we learn more.

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