By Christopher Mims
What to do if you're a globe-spanning tech titan that wants to
connect millions or even billions of devices, but you don't want
the hassle or cost of dealing with telcos, satellite operators or
cable companies for connectivity? You use the devices your
customers have already purchased -- and brought into homes,
businesses and public spaces -- to make an end-run around
traditional wireless networks.
Apple and Amazon are transforming the devices we own into the
equivalent of little cell towers or portable Wi-Fi hot spots that
can connect other gadgets and sensors to the internet. They have
already switched on hundreds of millions -- with many more on the
way. Instead of serving as wireless hubs solely for your own
smartwatches, lights and sensors, your iPhones and Echo speakers
can help other people's gadgets stay connected as well -- whether
you know it or not.
On Friday, Amazon announced it's expanding its Sidewalk network,
which already includes certain Ring Floodlight Cam and Spotlight
models, to include Echo devices released in 2018 and after. This
includes Echo speakers and Echo Dots, as well as all Echo Show,
Echo Plus and Echo Spot devices. It will also use recent Ring Video
Doorbell Pro models to communicate on the Sidewalk network via
Bluetooth. Sidewalk was designed to allow smart devices to send
very small bits of data securely from any available wireless
connection, to supplement Wi-Fi networks and reduce wireless
This announcement comes on the heels of Apple's AirTag
introduction. These coin-size trackers can help locate lost items
almost anywhere, because they use the company's Find My network.
Each AirTag sends out a low-powered wireless signal, which can be
received by the iPhones, iPads and Macs in a given area.
Yes, perfect strangers are using slivers of our bandwidth, as
our devices send out and listen to little chirrups of radio chatter
that don't pertain to us. And you're now able to leverage the
radios and internet connection of countless devices owned by other
Users can opt out of these systems, but the tech giants are
betting that for the most part we won't, because of the benefits
that these new networks will provide -- from finding our lost
possessions, pets and loved ones to remotely controlling our smart
locks, security systems and lights.
"What we're seeing now is the battle of the mesh networks," says
Ben Wood, chief analyst at CCS Insight, a tech industry
consultancy. "The use cases of these networks are limited only by
How Apple's Find My Works
If you could see an AirTag communicating with the radio waves
that enable the Find My network, it would look like
millisecond-bursts of light shooting out every few minutes, pinging
every possible iPhone, iPad and Mac in range -- about 30 feet. This
regular burst of chatter is key: If you lose your AirTag-attached
keys in a park while on vacation in Sydney, for example, many
strangers' iPhones would exchange an incredibly tiny amount of
encrypted data with that AirTag as they passed by. When you open
the Find My app to look for the keys, that data will have made its
way to you, even if you're already back in the U.S.
That tiny amount of data is why the Find My network, which began
helping locate iPhones back in 2011, doesn't kill our batteries or
bloat our cellphone bills, says Fadel Adib, an associate professor
of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT.
When a phone is transmitting and receiving data over a cellular
network, it might use around a watt of power, while transmitting
via Bluetooth Low Energy to an AirTag might require 1/100th of that
power. "So communicating with these tags is just a tiny, tiny
fraction of what the phone is normally drawing," he adds.
When your own iPhone (iPhone 11 or newer) is in proximity to an
AirTag, the two can also communicate via ultra-wideband radio
frequency using Apple's custom-designed U1 chip. This allows you to
pinpoint the AirTag's location -- but isn't used to find other
Apple has said its Find My network is secure, and uses
end-to-end encryption. The company has also said the Find My
network is judicious with personal data: The company has taken
steps to make it difficult to, say, use an AirTag dropped in a
stranger's bag to track that person as they go about their day, by
for example alerting them on their iPhone that an unfamiliar AirTag
How Amazon's Sidewalk Works
Amazon's Sidewalk network is in many ways different from Apple's
Find My network, though it also uses encryption for security, says
Manolo Arana, general manager of the Sidewalk project at Amazon.
For one thing, the devices that power it stay put, so the network
is not constantly in flux. And rather than just tracking the
location and identity of things, Sidewalk can be used for nearly
any kind of short two-way communication, he says.
Cities blanketed by the Sidewalk network could allow devices to
function even when their main connection to the internet goes down,
or is unavailable. Say your Ring smart security light is too far
from your home's Wi-Fi router, or maybe you just lose internet
connectivity. If a neighbor's Echo or Ring device is in range, your
security light could still function by routing its tiny bits of
traffic through that other connection.
Tile, which makes Bluetooth device-tracking tags that have been
popular for years, is adding the ability to track them through
Amazon's Sidewalk network, which allows them to connect directly to
Echo devices. Tile's previous attempts to create its own network
similar to Apple's Find My have been hampered by, among other
things, the way iPhones frequently ask Tile users for permission to
track their location, says Tile chief executive CJ Prober.
Apple's Find My Network uses short-range wireless Bluetooth
signals to communicate with nearby Apple devices -- as well as a
recently announced handful of other products, such as Chipolo
trackers and VanMoof bicycles. Amazon's Sidewalk also uses
Bluetooth, but is adding long-range wireless technology known as
LoRa to the Sidewalk network via certain Echo and Ring devices.
LoRa systems have generally been used for enterprise
applications, such as sensors and actuators in manufacturing and
the energy industry. They can communicate small amounts of data
across many miles when placed atop towers or even on satellites,
using relatively little power. When placed inside a device like an
Echo speaker, inside a home, the range can still be about a mile,
says Marc Pegulu, vice president of LoRa at semiconductor-maker
Semtech, one of Amazon's technology partners.
Sidewalk's long range will enable a new way to track people with
dementia who may wander, says Adam Sobol, CEO of CareBand.
CareBand's smartwatch-style wrist monitor with built-in GPS can
communicate via LoRa to Sidewalk-enabled Echo or Ring devices,
allowing family members and caregivers to remotely monitor the
whereabouts of a loved one. Mr. Sobol says that 90% of seniors with
dementia who wander stay within a mile. Another advantage of
Sidewalk is that users wouldn't have to pay any cellular fees to
use devices like the CareBand tracker.
Mr. Wood of CCS Insight says that embedding wireless networking
into devices that are popular in their own right, such as Ring
security cameras, is a good strategy. "If you look at where there's
already a high density of Ring devices, in Los Angeles especially,
where Ring started, you could imagine a scenario in which this
invisible Amazon Sidewalk network becomes this incredible asset to
Amazon and a value-add to Prime subscribers," he says.
How You Can Opt Out
People who own participating Echo and Ring devices can elect not
to be part of the Sidewalk network, but the toggle to opt out is
buried four menus deep in Amazon's Alexa and Ring apps. And while
you can opt out of Apple's Find My network, you do it by turning
off Find My. In other words, if you don't help others find their
misplaced devices, you risk losing yours.
Apple doesn't say how much data Find My uses, though it's likely
to be minuscule. Amazon doesn't say either, but there's a cap to
the amount of data it will send via your home's internet
connection: 80 kilobits per second, and 500 megabytes a month per
household Amazon account. "That's 10 minutes of YouTube video,"
says Mr. Arana of Amazon.
Nearly ubiquitous Sidewalk connectivity in cities could provide
even more functions for Amazon, says Mr. Wood. The company's
logistics arm could use it to track high-value deliveries using
small Tile-style trackers, for instance. And while other companies
have attempted widespread, device-based networks such as this, the
sales volume and customer-approval ratings enjoyed by both Apple
and Amazon provide a strategic advantage when building something
that could arguably seem unworkable and a little creepy.
"People love Amazon, and it's become an intrinsic part of many
people's lives, and particularly during the pandemic," says Mr.
Wood. In the same way, Apple has built a high level of trust with
its customers, allowing it to roll out its Find My network over
more than a decade with little pushback from users, he adds.
Aside from these vast networks becoming platforms in their own
right for enabling new applications, they also serve as yet another
way to keep customers locked into their creators' ecosystems.
AirTags, in particular, are classic Apple: Who would switch to
Android when it might mean suddenly not being able to find their
keys? By the same token, Amazon's Sidewalk network gives people one
more reason to own an Echo -- and to buy one for their aging loved
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Write to Christopher Mims at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
May 07, 2021 11:14 ET (15:14 GMT)
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