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30 October 2019

Amazon SideWalk uses LoRa, but may not help unite the LPWAN market

Since the announcement of Sidewalk, a new low power long(ish)-range protocol, rumors have persisted that Amazon would be using LoRa as the basis for Sidewalk. The FCC filing for Amazon’s Ring Bridge device confirms that it houses a LoRa chip, and while this might be the best proof of the rumors’ validity to date, this news is not necessarily good news for the wider LoRaWAN ecosystem.

For those new to the area, LoRaWAN is the open (but not open source) standard that defines the technology stack that can be used to create LPWAN networks. LoRa itself is the intellectual property of Semtech, a company that makes the radio transceiver chips that power these networks.

In terms of nomenclature, every LoRaWAN device is using a LoRa chip, but not every LoRa chip is powering a LoRaWAN device – as other stacks could be used in place of LoRaWAN. To this end, Amazon embracing LoRa is good for Semtech and its licensee partners, but unless Amazon adopts LoRaWAN, Sidewalk is not going to be good for market unity.

One of the long-running problems in the LoRa ecosystem has been the tension between private LoRa deployments and public LoRaWAN ones. In theory, public LoRaWAN networks would facilitate global deployments, where LoRaWAN devices could roam between gateways, always connected, and powering global applications that are accessible to everyone from the largest enterprises to the smallest garage developer.

However, private LoRa networks, running proprietary networking stacks, play no part in this vision of the future. They are walled off, closed from the rest of the world, and not contributing to the LoRa Alliance’s plan. They can still be very valuable resources to the business that commissioned and deployed them, powering critical applications, but they are walled gardens.

To this end, if Sidewalk is essentially a private version of LoRaWAN, then its powerful smart home ecosystem is going to start persuading developers to adopt Sidewalk rather than LoRaWAN. Even if it does publish Sidewalk on Github, as has been briefly mentioned in a podcast, unless it is LoRaWAN or something completely interoperable with LoRaWAN, Amazon is going to distort the LoRaWAN marketplace.

To be clear, Amazon adopting LoRaWAN could be the winning blow in the LPWAN sector. If it started converting smart homes into LPWAN base stations, via the Amazon-controlled devices within them, it could massively advance the installed coverage for LoRa globally, providing networks wherever there are homes – and as we know, population coverage is initially more valuable than territorial coverage.

However, if Amazon is only interested in using LoRa chips to add a slightly longer-range in-home network, that could connect outdoor lights and sensors to the home network, then it is effectively creating another walled garden within a global IoT ecosystem that is more or less comprised wholly of walled gardens. Perhaps we’re still a little too utopian, but a private LoRa-based ecosystem is just another silo – one that could be very lucrative for Amazon, but not for the wider IoT.

Notably, the FCC filing doesn’t denote the LoRa chip being used, nor the antenna manufacturer. We can glean that it uses 915 MHz LoRa and 2.4 GHz WiFi, and can simultaneously transmit both, but even the WiFi chip being used is currently secret. Based on the numbers we can see from the photos, a Nordic Semi Bluetooth 5 SoC is incorporated, as well as a Qualcomm Atheros AR9331-AL3A WiFi Module. There’s a Winbond RAM chip on there too, but the identity of the LoRa chip itself remains a mystery.

The Ring Bridge is the hub that connects the Ring Beam family of outdoor lights, to the home’s WiFi network. Amazon Sidewalk was unveiled at Amazon’s annual hardware event, as the basis for a “brand new low-bandwidth network” that will power the Ring Fetch dog tracker.

At the event, Amazon said it had managed to cover the whole of the LA basin using 700 test devices given out to employees. The word ‘mesh’ was thrown around a lot, which is interesting from a network architecture perspective. This could be the great differentiator for Sidewalk, if it does add a proper mesh networking implementation like Zigbee, Z-Wave, or Wi-SUN. However, if Amazon is actually just backhauling all the messages from the Ring Bridge gateways and viewing it as a single network, then ‘mesh’ isn’t quite the right term.

A software developer kit (SDK) for Sidewalk is apparently on the way, which would let other developers add Sidewalk to their devices, but Amazon has to solve the business model here. How will it charge companies for access to Sidewalk networks – acting as a network operator, or as a company that stands to profit directly from a richer ecosystem and so giving away connectivity for free.

Neither Amazon or Ring are LoRa Alliance members, and perhaps most confusing is the talk of such a short range. ‘Up to a mile’ was the phrase used at the event, which is far shorter than most LoRa devices manage. This could be the strongest clue that Sidewalk is not going to be LoRaWAN.

Given how slowly details have been to trickle out about Sidewalk, there’s not much more to add here, since we first wrote about Sidewalk. While we think some of the more celebratory takes from the LoRaWAN community are premature, there’s nothing stopping Amazon pivoting into the LoRaWAN sector.

We will have to wait and see what Amazon announces, but ask yourself if you think Bezos is the one who will drive the U-LPWAN sector forwards. It seems a little out of character. Perhaps there’s a tie-in with the not-exactly-well-liked Sidewalk Labs smart city project, an offshoot from Alphabet – although seeing those two pair up is perhaps more improbable than Bezos being an LPWAN zealot.