Amazon May Be Hiding Its Plans to Test New Wireless Tech by Masquerading as a Massage Spa

A curious list of test locations in a recent FCC application suggest the tech giant is up to something

Illustration of Amazon's logo with a radio signal for the O and a question mark in it.
Illustration: IEEE Spectrum; Logo: Amazon; Icon: Shutterstock

What do a Silicon Valley massage spa, a local community college, and a California plastics manufacturer have in common? They will soon be testing hundreds of cutting-edge wireless devices, according to an application for an experimental permit filed last week with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.

If that sounds unlikely, it is. It seems much more likely that the new devices will actually be tested at three nearby Amazon facilities. These include two buildings belonging to the company’s secretive Lab126 research division, and one of the retailer’s largest fulfillment centers in the state.

On 19 November, a company called Chrome Enterprises sought permission to test up to 450 prototype devices using Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS), a new technology that aims to deliver ultrafast wireless broadband over shared radio frequencies.

In particular, CBRS opens access to a radio frequency band (3.5 gigahertz) that the FCC had previously set aside for military use, and makes it so that the military can share that band with anyone who buys a router or phone that supports the service, or has a cellphone plan with a carrier that has paid for a sliver of the band.

With all of this new spectrum available, CBRS promises faster, more reliable communications than Wi-Fi, and could enable new Internet of Things applications in offices, hospitals, factories, and more.

In its application, Chrome Enterprises wrote that it wants to “evaluate CBRS equipment and associated software…to test the transmission of wireless signal[s] between temporary fixed location[s] to mobile devices and vice versa inside the building[s].”

The proof-of-concept testing would involve up to 150 fixed transmitters and up to 300 mobile units at “facilities” in Cupertino, Sunnyvale, and Tracy, Calif. Although Comcast, Nokia, Verizon, and others have tested CBRS devices before, this is by far the largest deployment of the technology to date that IEEE Spectrum could identify by reviewing public FCC permits.

Strange, then, that the company requesting permission, Chrome Enterprises, appears to exist only on paper. Its mailing address is a single suite in an office building in suburban Georgia, and the company was founded only last year in Delaware, a state with tight corporate confidentiality rules.

The email address for Chrome Enterprises is a free account, and the phone number listed for Chrome in its FCC application goes straight to voice mail.

However, the FCC filing does present clues to which company may actually be behind these tests. Although the three locations specified are improbable candidates for next-generation wireless experiments, the filing notes that “tests will be conducted at temporary fixed locations within a radius of 2 kilometers of the specified coordinates.”

Drawing a 2-kilometer circle around the three points on a map reveals only one company with a significant presence near all three. Foothill College’s Sunnyvale Center is a scant 800 meters from the headquarters of Lab126, the Amazon research arm that developed its Kindle, Fire TV, and Echo devices.

Cupertino’s branch of MassageEnvy is fewer than 500 meters from a satellite Lab126 building, called SJC3.

And American Plastics in Tracy looks directly across the street at semitrailers serving Amazon’s monstrous Tracy Fulfillment Center.

Amazon’s massive, high-tech warehouses, home to robots and automated picking systems, would seem a natural place to test CBRS technology.

There are other clues within the filing that point to Amazon. It was drafted by the same Washington, D.C., lawyer who wrote previous FCC applications for Amazon, and uses almost identical language to those filings. In one section, it copies a section verbatim from an earlier application, starting: “The participants in the research are principals or employees of the company.” However, this statement is unlikely to be true, as Chrome Enterprises does not appear to have an office, staff, or a business license in California.

If Amazon is behind the tests, that statement, and the inaccurate locations quoted in the filing, could come back to haunt it. Every FCC form warns applicants that the agency can punish applicants for willfully making false statements, by revoking licenses and permits or imposing fines.

The FCC, Amazon, and Chrome Enterprises did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. If Amazon’s plans do include large-scale CBRS tests in California, it’s difficult to see why the company felt the need for so much secrecy. Alternatively, perhaps even massage spas in Silicon Valley feel the need to stay on the cutting edge of technology.

Update on 28 November: CCO Fiberlink, a subsidiary of Charter Communications, has recently sought permission from the FCC for an even larger test of CBRS equipment in Colorado, comprising 600 devices.

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