If you have an Echo or Ring device and didn’t know how to opt out, Amazon has already activated its new Sidewalk network functionality for you. Take a look around and you will find lots of tips on how to turn it off or off as soon as possible. But should you? Like many things, the answer is “it depends”.
What is Amazon Sidewalk
Before you can determine whether you should turn the sidewalk on or off, it helps to know what it is. Have you ever bought a bluetooth tracker promising that it could help you find your lost items, only to be disappointed when it was out of range (eg at the library) and away from other tracking devices? Unless you lose your keys in your house, many tracking devices are almost useless.
But some, like Apple’s AirTags and Samsung’s Smartag +, can actually send you a signal, even if you’ve left it by the side of the road or in the garage. These smart trackers use ultra-broadband radio to connect to other devices, like iPhones and Galaxy devices. This creates a much larger network so you can actually find your missing tracker.
Amazon’s sidewalk is an interpretation of the same idea. It turns your Echo speakers, smart displays, and select Ring devices into a bridge for a giant public network. And that’s the key word, “public”. It basically shares a small portion of your network with the people around you, theoretically safe. This public network has several advantages. And potentially some drawbacks.
The advantages of the sidewalk
We have already mentioned AirTags and SmarTag +, and in the same spirit, Sidewalk is good news for Tile. Remember the example where you left a Bluetooth tracker in the library and couldn’t locate it? This is a common scenario for Tile. In theory, if they are close enough to someone else’s Tile tracker, they can contact you using that person as an anonymous intermediary. In practice, this rarely happened. Not enough people own Tile trackers to do a good job.
This is where Amazon Sidewalk comes in. Soon, Tile will work with Amazon’s Sidewalk Network. And if a sticker is close enough to someone’s Echo or Ring device with the service enabled, they can contact you so you can find your lost items. This, in theory, should easily overcome the problem of low saturation of Tile devices. After all, many homes have Amazon Echo and Ring safety devices that work like sidewalk bridges.
It’s not just Tile getting in on the action either. Other devices like CareBand, a wearable tracking device for children and the elderly, explores the implementation of Sidewalk. CareBand helps locate lost children or people with dementia who are moving away. While he endures LoraWan networks like proof of coverage Helium service, access to Trottoir should increase its reach and its probability of connecting to a network.
Even if you don’t have a Tile or Careband, you might be able to help someone else who does. But you will always benefit from it too. Right now, if your Wi-Fi goes down for some reason, you lose access to your Echo and Ring devices. But if someone close enough has also enabled Sidewalk, your device may still work. They will connect to the Internet through Sidewalk. And because Sidewalk uses a combination of Bluetooth Low Energy, 900 MHz spectrum, and other frequencies, Amazon says setting up devices in the future should be easier. Sidewalk can do the tough job of attaching your new Echo to your router.
The disadvantages of the sidewalk
Of course, everything comes with risk, and the downsides and the sidewalk are no different. You are effectively opening up your network to make Sidewalk possible. Amazon has put in some security to secure access to your network through the Sidewalk protocol. In theory, only approved devices should connect and behave in an approved manner.
But that sounds like Apple’s promise to keep everything it allows in the App Store to keep users safe. No matter how hard Apple tries, sometimes a bad app succeeds. It’s not inconceivable that someone would find a way to get through Amazon security. And like other tech companies, the moment Amazon invites a third party into the process, you lose even more control of your data. After all, Amazon cannot guarantee what the third party does once the data is out of Amazon’s hands.
And Amazon likes to brag that it provides you with a large public network at no cost, but that’s a bit misleading. In fact, you (and everyone else) are giving Amazon the resources of a large public network for free. Amazon didn’t have to build towers or pay to install radios in everyone’s home. It did not pay to build an infrastructure, only to give it away for free.
Rather, he sold the equipment and borrowed the network. First you paid to put the radio in your house, then you paid to provide it with Wi-Fi, and now you loan a small portion of that Wi-Fi to Amazon. You might benefit when you’re traveling from someone else’s network, but they then paid for it.
You could possibly end up paying more because of it. Amazon says it will try not to use up a lot of your data by limiting the speed of Sidewalk devices to 80kbps and capping data usage at 500MB per month. It’s not a lot. But if you have a limited data plan or your ISP limits you, then every little detail counts. And potentially worst of all, you have no control over what Amazon does with your network. At any time, Amazon could pivot and add new features without even telling you. And that’s evident from the way he implemented Sidewalk.
Amazon hasn’t gained much trust here
Here we should be addressing the elephant in the room. Amazon hasn’t really asked for permission to install Sidewalk in your home. The company opted for Sidewalk and not for registration. And he hasn’t gone out of his way to let users know about the upcoming change. Amazon quietly hid a setting to turn it off and turned it on by default. Of course you can find Amazon and Ring Sidewalk deactivation help pages, but those are buried.
And it’s not as if people can reasonably expect to suddenly host a secondary network inside their home network. If you are purchasing a Helium router, it is for the express purpose of providing your region with a LoRaWan network. You know Carebands will connect to your network; you entered it with that intention (and you get paid in cryptocurrency). But the Amazon Echo and Ring devices have been on the market for years. The first Echo was launched seven years ago. The devices clearly had a goal (smart home voice assistant and security), which is a whole new goal.
It’s pretty easy to see why Amazon has taken the opt-out route. If people don’t notice or care, then the sidewalk will be bigger. But if a person doesn’t care enough about turning off something, it’s hard to convince them to turn it on. Still, it’s not a great look. “Asking for forgiveness” implies that you know that what you have done is wrong. Or, at the very least, controversial. You knew you would need forgiveness, and you did it anyway.
Amazon knew someone that people wouldn’t be happy with, and it moved on nonetheless. He chose for the users instead of providing a choice for the users. And it’s never great. But that doesn’t necessarily make the sidewalk itself bad. Just born under less than ideal circumstances.
Should you turn off the sidewalk?
So that leaves us with the overarching question. The sidewalk is there now. Should we turn it off? Full disclosure here: I did. But this is partly because I am already involved in other similar projects, in which I participated of my own free will. I’m not a fan of how Amazon enabled Sidewalk. But that doesn’t mean you have to turn it off. After all, my house might not host Sidewalk, but I host similar LoRaWAN networks.
Before disabling Sidewalk, there are a few questions you should ask yourself.
- Do you trust Amazon enough to lend it your network?
- Does your network have a low data cap?
- Do you want easy setup for your Amazon devices or to keep them connected when Wi-Fi is down?
- Do you like the idea of helping strangers find their lost belongings or lost people?
If you don’t trust Amazon, there’s probably nothing that will convince you to keep Sidewalk on, and that’s fine. You’ve probably already disabled SIdewalk, but at least you investigated first. Good for you. It makes sense to avoid unnecessary data usage for anyone on a network with data limits or throttling, especially through 5G services. You can turn it off.
But if you want easy setup, if you want your Echo and Ring devices to always work when Wi-Fi is down, then it makes sense to leave Sidewalk on. If you want to take advantage of other people’s network through Sidewalk, it’s only fair to share it with them.
And if you want to potentially help someone out, even though you might never meet them, then keeping Sidewalk on is a painless way to do it. There is no wrong answer here. Do what makes you comfortable. And if that turns off Sidewalk, check out our partner site, How-To Geek. They will tell you how.