Your Ring Doorbell the camera doesn’t just transmit a live video feed from your door to your computer. It also extends your home network to the street, making some of your Internet bandwidth available for free to anyone who can use it.
You might be surprised to learn this. In fact, it’s been going on for almost two years. In June 2021, Amazon launched a program called Sidewalk which relies on its Ring cameras and Echo speakers to emit wireless signals than others smart home gadgets can get snagged. The idea is that Sidewalk helps your devices stay connected to the internet even if they’re far from your router. Think of the Ring camera in your backyard. Sidewalk gives her a more stable connection by allowing her to connect to other Ring cameras and use their Wi-Fi networks to talk to the Internet. The sidewalk also acts as a built-in safety measure; if your internet service goes down, your Ring doorbell can connect to the low-bandwidth signal from your neighbor’s Echo speaker and send you alerts.
Since its launch, Sidewalk has only been compatible with select smart home devices from Amazon and those from early partners like Tile. Today, Amazon Sidewalk is open to all developers. Now, anyone who wants to operate their smart home gadget as an endpoint in Amazon’s public mesh network, allowing them to both provide a wireless signal and boost nearby bandwidth when needed, can do it. Partner companies Texas Instruments, Nordic Semiconductor, Silicon Labs, and Quectel have released software development kits for programmers who want to add Sidewalk support to devices using their platforms.
This new development program should lead to more Sidewalk-enabled products from other companies: speakers, cameras, digital photo frames, smart scales, thermostats, robot vacuums, TVs, and more. It could also give devices on the street a boost, which would no longer have to rely on cellular data to stay connected. Delivery bots could use Sidewalk to stay in line as they make their way to your house. Fire departments could monitor data streams from Sidewalk-compatible smoke sensors installed in a city. May a thousand flowers bloom.
The link is flashing
Of course, the success of this program really depends on the quality of Sidewalk’s network. I was surprised to learn that Sidewalk’s coverage is actually huge. Amazon claims that 90% of the US population can access a Sidewalk signal. There’s this massive wireless network that used to hide in plain sight and is now open for business.
To test coverage in my area, Amazon sent me a Sidewalk test kit. This is the same test kit that developers can order today to detect signal strength in their own region. The kit is a small, matchbox-sized fob bearing the Ring logo. I loaded it up, strapped it to my backpack and hit the town. Every few seconds, its single blue LED flashed as it pinged Amazon, which recorded the location of the key fob and the Sidewalk signal strength there. (The test kit measures Semtech’s LoRa, or long-range wireless data signals. It does not measure Bluetooth signals, which Sidewalk can also use.)
A few times friends noticed the flashing remote and asked what it was. I talked to them about it and offered them a quick Sidewalk explainer. They had never heard of Sidewalk, and most of them were stunned to learn that their Echo speakers and Ring cameras were sharing part of their home network signal around the world for public use. I pointed out that Sidewalk is quite similar to Apple’s “Find My” network, which they may have already used to geotag their iPhones, AirTags, and AirPods. I also explained that Amazon takes steps to keep Sidewalk safe; the company wrote a white paper describing how all Sidewalk data transfers are encrypted and how it minimizes the use of identifying metadata. Finally, I mentioned that Sidewalk’s bandwidth is limited to 80 Kbps, which is about one-sixth the bandwidth needed to stream HD video, so your neighbors can’t use your router to watch anime. They can’t even connect to it unless they have a Sidewalk-enabled device.