Amazon Sidewalk adds new partners, plans to open to developers soon

At CES, Amazon today announced that a number of new devices from four manufactureres will soon join its Sidewalk network. Sidewalk, Amazon’s long-range, low-bandwidth IoT mesh network that is powered by sharing a small portion of a user’s bandwidth from devices like the company’s Echo speakers and Ring cameras, currently supports the Tile tracker, Amazon’s own Ring cameras and sensors, as well as Level smart locks and CareBand’s senior-care systems. Now, you can add sensors from Browan and New Cosmos, Meshify and Deviceroy’s Aria to this list, though only the Deviceroy system, which will connect solar inverters to the internet, is currently available, with the rest launching later this year.

For the most part, these four new partners are not exactly household names. Amazon’s Tanuj Mohan, the company’s GM and CTO for Sidewalk, however, told me that a number of new partners will launch over the course of this year. More importantly, he also said that Amazon plans to open up the Sidewalk network to developers in the first half of this year. This, he noted, will enable virtually anyone who wants to get started with building IoT products to order a reference kit from Amazon’s partners and get going in days, all without having to worry about connectivity.

“Anybody who has an idea should be able to go to an AWS website, find a hardware kit from Silicon Labs, TI or from somebody, order the kit and be able to get this kit flowing data via AWS into an application,” he explained. “They can start writing literally as soon as the kit is in their hands. So that is what we expect [when we] open for developers. My vision is that with some of these kits and devices, they could actually try building something real out of it and maybe even in low numbers for proof of concepts to prove their business case in a timespan that was never before possible.”

As Mohan noted, one of the major challenges for the Sidewalk team is to get people to change the way they think about IoT connectivity. “The market doesn’t fully appreciate why sidewalk is different,” he said when I asked him what his team’s hardest challenge is. “They have heard that, oh, Matter solves everything, or ZigBee solves everything, or we have had this forever. But not really. You haven’t had a network that’s just there and a device that ships to your house that you power on and it’s on. Yes, maybe a cell phone with a SIM card does that. But nothing else.”

Some manufacturers may have gotten started with ZigBee or WiFi to add smarts to everyday devices like a faucet, he noted, but then learned that people didn’t have a ZigBee hub or just wouldn’t configure it. “It was an investment that wasn’t worthwhile,” he said. “If you look at the percentages of some of these smart things that smartness was forced on, a very low percentage of them got ever got connected.”

Ideally, that’s not a problem with Sidewalk and while Matter is trying to solve some of these problems, Mohan argued that Sidewalk may actually help Matter to grow because it can provide the initial networking capabilities for the Matter network to allow for setting up new devices.

Image Credits: Meshify

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Amazon Sidewalk adds new partners, plans to open to developers soon by Frederic Lardinois originally published on TechCrunch

Here’s what Swarm has been up to in the 10 months since being acquired by SpaceX

It’s been nearly a year since satellite Internet-of-Things connectivity provider Swarm was acquired by SpaceX, and Swarm co-founder and CEO Sara Spangelo (now senior director of Satellite Engineering at SpaceX) is ready to talk about what Swarm’s been up to in that time. SpaceX is not known to be a super acquisitive company, so I was curious to hear about what it’s been like for Spangelo and for Swarm. Mostly, it’s been 10 months of rapid acceleration, she says.

One of Swarm’s biggest blockers in terms of speed of deployment and growing its network was the ability to actually launch its satellites, which themselves are tiny — the company says they’re “the smallest operational satellites in space,” at little more than the size of your average sandwich. Spangelo said that unlocking launch availability has been one of the biggest benefits of operating under the SpaceX umbrella so far.

“Access to basically free launch is pretty exciting,” she told me in an interview. “We actually have launched probably three or four times since we last spoke [Editor’s note: in June 2021 for our Found podcast], and we now have over 160 satellites in LEO [low-Earth orbit] — some of those are experimental.”

Those experimental payloads have helped the company improve its overall latency, so now it can guarantee latency at under one hour (meaning a Swarm satellite passes overhead any given point on Earth at least once an hour), which opens up broad new customer categories and applications for its low-bandwidth, hyperefficient connectivity services.

“That’s a pretty important threshold, if you’re doing any sort of monitoring, whether it’s floods, water, forest fire detection, agriculture applications, logistics applications — that’s like a pretty important threshold in that community,” Spangelo explained. “So being low [latency], that has unlocked a bunch of exciting new use cases and customers.”

Swarm’s tiny satellites have essentially been hitching a ride on SpaceX launches for other customers, where it’s easy for the company “to just pop them on” in Spangelo’s words. Satellite launch tends to be a game of ounces because of weight considerations, but the benefits of being the smallest operational satellites in space mean that you stand a better chance than most of fitting within existing mission payload parameters for SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets even with other cargo on board.

While access to regular orbital delivery service is incredibly valuable to a technology like Swarm’s, Spangelo says that it’s also unlocked a host of other efficiencies that help the previously small startup leap ahead in terms of its maturation and infrastructure.

“We’ve had access to just more support systems,” she said. “So legal, accounting, HR, recruiting, logistics, supply chain and production. That’s also helped us accelerate a lot of our production rate, [and] our hiring rate. We’ve been scaling up and we’ll probably do 10x the number of devices sold this year vs. what we did last year.”

Of course, it’s a two-way street (it wouldn’t make much sense as an acquisition otherwise) and Spangelo says SpaceX is already benefiting plenty, too.

“We’re also supporting SpaceX in a bunch of ways, from engineering and technology, and regulatory strategies, to lots of other programs that hopefully we get to talk about in the future,” she said, reserving details on just what those programs might entail for now. I suggested that some kind of marriage between Starlink’s consumer internet service and Swarm’s connected device offerings might make sense, and she did agree that there are synergies they’re exploring there.

“We’re definitely having product discussions across the chasm that is Starlink broadband, to Swarm IoT and everything in between,” she said. “And the roadmap really fills in a lot of the gaps between those things that you’re hinting at. Certainly on the enterprise side, we’ve started to engage with some of the same enterprise customers. You can imagine big agriculture companies, or oil and gas, or maritime companies have need for broadband, as well as for satellite IoT. So we’ve definitely been able to benefit from those mutual relationships really both ways: Some Swarm customers are interested in Starlink, and vice versa.”

With new use cases and new sales relationships, as well as plenty of demand on both sides, Spangelo says both Starlink and Swarm within SpaceX are still growing their teams despite the current macroeconomic conditions, especially when it comes to specific types of talent.

“A lot of people don’t know that Starlink is actually kind of a networking company,” she said. “We think of [SpaceX] as a hardware rocket company — a bunch of mechanical engineers. But the sophistication of the software, networking algorithms, back ends at the core networks and laser mesh networks, it’s incredibly complicated. So we have, I think, over 200 software engineers on Starlink, and 500 or so at [SpaceX]. But we are definitely looking for incredible talent there.”

As for what Spangelo is excited that Swarm has been able to do, and do better, working as a SpaceX company, she mentioned a number of new use cases that have come online since we last spoke, including wildfire detection. With a max of under one hour of latency, and often results that refresh in minutes, you can change considerably the approach to detection and mitigation of wildfires, which can spread for hours or even days without people knowing when monitored only through traditional methods. Swarm is working with a number of companies there, including Berlin-based Dryad Networks.

Another recent customer, Rainforest Connection, uses Swarm’s IoT network to connect simple acoustic sensors deployed in the Brazilian rainforest.

“Basically, they have just an acoustic sensor, like you have on your phone, and it basically just hears a chainsaw, and then calls in the people that will stop the [deforestation],” she said. “That one is just so cool to me — that such a simple sensor can have like such a big impact, because it’s so hard to find these things.”

As for what the future holds for Swarm, Spangelo says that they’re actually pretty pleased with where the satellite hardware and design is currently, though they’re looking to build more software products for enterprise customers. There are also “some products that are more standalone that are actually more appropriate for tracking use cases, and some of the bigger enterprise use cases” that don’t require the sophisticated integration of their current modem design, she said, something more “on brand with” Elon Musk’s “out of the box philosophy”; something she said has already had influence on the product side.

Meanwhile Swarm continues to operate out of its facility in Mountain View, just a short distance from a nearby SpaceX office, making collaboration relatively simple. The Falcon 9 launch pads are a little farther away, but you can’t beat the price for the ride.

Alphabet gives some Loon patents to SoftBank, open sources flight data and makes patent non-assertion pledge

Alphabet’s Loon was a stratospheric moonshot that saw the company fly high-altitude balloons to provide cellular network coverage to target areas. The project broke a lot of new ground, including developing technology that enabled balloons to navigate autonomously and stay in one area for long stretches of time, but ultimately came to an end. Now, Alphabet is divvying up the Loon assets, many of which are being either made available to others in the industry for free — or handed over to key partners and strategic investors.

SoftBank is one company that walks away with some intellectual property; the Japanese telecommunication giant gets around 200 of Loon’s patents related to stratospheric communications, service, operations and aircraft, which it says it will put to use developing its own High Altitude Platform Stations (HAPS) business. SoftBank was an erstwhile partner of Loon’s, having founded the ‘HAPS Alliance’ to further the industry. SoftBank’s own HAPS business focused on autonomous gliders, but it adapted its communications payloads to work on Loon’s balloons, too. SoftBank is also an investor in Loon, having put $125 million in the Alphabet company in 2019.

The other company to get a windfall of sorts out of Loon’s closure is Raven, another partner and a company that focuses on the manufacture of the high altitude balloons that the Alphabet moonshot operated. It picks up patents related specifically to balloon manufacturing.

Testing the impact of lightning on Loons hardware in the lab.

A significant chunk of the rest of Loon’s work and accomplishments will be made available generally to advance the state of the art in stratospheric science and industry. Alphabet has open sourced data from Loon’s collective 70 million kms or so of flight, including GPS and sensor data. The company also made a non-assertion commitment for 270 of its patents and patent applications, dealing with everything from balloon launching, to in-flight navigation, to managing balloon fleets and more. For would-be stratospheric balloon mavens, and the general public, Loon also compiled a book about the Loon experience, which is available as a free PDF embedded below.

The temptation to draw Icarus comparisons with this particular project is very high, but Alphabet’s moonshots have a higher than average possibility of failure baked in from the start so it’s not really that apt. Also, the fact that all of this IP and data gets made available to the public is a pretty good outcome for the scientific community, too.

Facebook launches commerce and connectivity-focused accelerator programs

Facebook launched two 12-week accelerator programs for startups on Monday as the social juggernaut looks for new ideas and solutions to expand its commerce and connectivity efforts.

Facebook’s Commerce Accelerator will select 60 startups from the EMEA and LATAM regions for the program, the company said. The startups that make the cut will explore building shopping solutions to drive commerce inside Facebook’s family of apps.

“Our goal is to make shopping seamless and empower anyone from an entrepreneur to the largest brand to use our apps to connect with customers,” wrote Michael Huang, Head of Startup Programs at Facebook, in a blog post.

The company said a recent global survey it conducted in partnership with the OECD and World Bank found that at least a third of small to medium-sized businesses on Facebook reported 25% or more of their sales being made digitally in the past month.

“With so many sales being made online, the importance of intuitive and positive e-commerce experiences for customers has become even greater,” the company said in a statement.

The other accelerator program, called Connectivity, will feature 30 startups from the LATAM and North America (Americas) regions. These startups will be tasked with developing affordable connectivity solutions that make internet access available in more places and to at least 100,000 additional people.

Facebook said through these accelerator programs it aims to provide local development opportunities for entrepreneurs. The company holds one or two similar accelerator programs each year in some markets. In total, the company has launched accelerator programs in 11 countries to date.

The coronavirus pandemic, which has forced Facebook to conduct the accelerator programs virtually this year, has “exposed the hard truth of the digital divide and the critical need for reliable, affordable internet connectivity,” wrote Huang.

Participating startups will gain access to cost-free training, 1:1 mentorship, and access to Facebook products, its expertise and access to a global network of startup peers and successful founders. But the company is not offering monetary benefits to startups —  something it has in some of its previous accelerator programs — at accelerators announced on Monday.

Startups interested in either of the accelerator programs can submit their application.

“At Facebook, we strongly believe that by connecting, training, and growing entrepreneurs and startups through our programs, we can empower people to solve relevant, meaningful problems. We aim to build products that billions of people can use and benefit from,” Huang wrote.

Facebook has long focused on connectivity efforts, but its interest in commerce is relatively new. In May, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg unveiled Facebook Shops to make it easier for companies to list their products on Facebook and Instagram.

Alphabet’s Loon signs deal with Telefonica to provide internet to remote parts of the Amazon

Alphabet-owned Loon, the high-altitude balloon company that is using its stratospheric technology to provide internet connectivity on Earth, has signed a new commercial agreement with Telefonica-owned Internet para Todos (IpT). The IpT initiative, which is also backed in part by Facebook and the Development Bank of Latin America, aims to provide internet connectivity to users in remote locations across Latin America, and its deal with Loon will specifically connect users in remote parts fo the Amazon Rainforest in Peru.

Loon will begin providing service in 2020, provided the deal gets all the necessary regulatory approval it requires. This is a first in terms of a commercial deployment of high altitude gallons with the aim of offering connectivity over a continued, sustained period, so there’s some new ground to break in terms of working with the Peru Ministry of Transport and Communications prior to launch, but the partners involved are working with regulators to make sure everything’s signed off before launch.

This isn’t the first time Loon has worked with Telefonica – the two join forces to provide emergency internet connectivity following the 8.0 earthquake that hit Peru in May, and the’ve been collaborating on a number of projects for years. For Loon, this is now the third commercial contract it has secured, including one with Telkom Kenya which is also awaiting final regulatory sign-off, and an arrangement with Canadian company Telecast to develop a coordination system for a future planned low-Earth orbit satellite constellation.

The initial deployment plan for this partnership with IpT will provide connectivity to an area that makes up around 15 percent of the total area of the Loreto Region in Peru, which together accounts for a population of around 200,000 people. Of that 200,000, roughly a quarter have access to connectivity at least that 3G quality, according to Loon. The Loon balloons that will be deployed to provide service essentially act as very high altitude cell towers, receiving LTE connections and redistributing those directly to consumer devices on the ground.