Why I’ll Opt Out of Amazon’s Bandwidth Collective
Amazon Sidewalk drafts your hardware into a low-bandwidth, mesh network army
Next to my desk, I have my very first Amazon Echo. The almost foot-tall cylinder bears little resemblance to the current fourth-gen fabric-covered ball design. Even so, Amazon is conscripting my smart speaker, the latest models, and all Echoes in between into its long-gestating, neighbor-created, low-bandwidth mesh network: Sidewalk.
It’s been almost two years since Amazon announced the 900MHz network intended to bridge the gap between short-range Wi-Fi and Bluetooth and more powerful long-range connectivity options like LTE and 5G. Back then, I wasn’t entirely sure I understood Amazon’s plan. I like the idea of ubiquitous, low-energy connectivity for smart home devices in and around the home and was intrigued by the concept of Amazon Fetch, a dog collar that could connect with the network and help you find your lost dog even if your dog ran away from home.
If I recall, Amazon did mention the concept of “Sidewalk Bridges” (also known as “Sidewalk Gateways”), but I don’t know if I understood in 2019 that Amazon was simply relabeling existing Echo hardware (as well as some Ring doorbells and Floodlights). Amazon wasn’t selling new hardware to support Sidewalk. Instead, the idea was to carve away a tiny piece of each device’s internet bandwidth, pool it together, and then share that as part of a 900 MHz community network. Sidewalk-enabled devices, including Amazon Echoes and Ring devices, could then use that network to stay connected or reconnect in spotty network situations.
Now, after years of testing and some experiments with building vast 900MHz networks out of Echo and Ring hardware, Amazon is ready to launch the full Sidewalk network. According to multiple reports, Amazon is set to light up Sidewalk on June 8, and it will be an opt-out system.
Upon hearing this, I started going through my home, taking inventory of my various Amazon smart devices. Turns out I have fewer Echo devices than I thought but enough that I needed to make a choice. Did I want Amazon to conscript me and a tiny portion of my network? Could my network even handle it?
My issue is with the approach. This is not an “ask forgiveness not permission” situation.
My high-speed home broadband is like a beautiful, frozen lake. Often, I’m gliding over it, thrilled with the polished surface and speed, and other times, the glistening plane cracks beneath me and I slip under, barely able to open a simple web page. It wasn’t always this way, but the pandemic-driven remote workforce trend has stressed my network in new and clearly unanticipated ways. I think I need every shred of my bandwidth, thank you very much.
I’ve read a few articles expressing deep concern about whatever security issues might be introduced by this network sharing strategy. Amazon promises multiple layers of encryption, and that should offer some reassurance. Taking our trust for granted, though, is a mistake. Better for Amazon to offer Sidewalk to Echo and Ring customers as a value add while proving that it is safe with at least 12 months out in the wild.
Who among us would like to discover that Amazon’s been surreptitiously sucking some of our bandwidth without our express permission? Tech-savvy customers won’t be surprised, or perhaps they saw it coming and opted out, but what about the millions of other Amazon customers who enjoy the benefits of Echo use without ever thinking about the technical underpinnings? They won’t be happy.
Even though Sidewalk hasn’t launched, I dug into my Amazon Alexa App settings (Settings/Account Settings/Amazon Sidewalk) where I found the shared network protocol already enabled and, as the app information notes:
This setting will apply to all of your supported Echo and Ring devices that are linked to your Amazon account.
In truth, I’m not opposed to the idea of a broad-scale mesh network system. There could be tremendous value in tying together all the smaller home networks for emergency communication and more dramatic tasks like finding lost children (such a network could work with that Tile tracker you attached to your child’s backpack). My issue is with the approach. This is not an “ask forgiveness not permission” situation.
For now, I’m saying “no” to this mesh network draft. Prove it’s safe, effective, and worth my trouble, and I’ll give it a go.
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