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5G

Could Helium finally succeed where so many others failed?

OK, strap yourself in because this story has it all: 5G, unlicensed spectrum, IoT, private networks, eSIM, cryptocurrency, blockchain and a really disruptive approach to telecom services.

But most importantly, it has a mechanism to reward regular people for building their own 5G hotspot. Meaning, you could get paid by Helium for installing a 5G transmitter on top of your house.

And don't just take my word for it: Stacey Higginbotham, editor of Stacey on IoT, explained in detail recently how she made $10,000 by running her own Helium transmission sites.

I've also spoken to some top-level executives in the wireless industry who said they've made similar money doing the same thing. One told me he's making several thousand dollars per month thanks to the Helium transmitters he's operating in downtown Denver.

But here's the new thing: Helium is starting to become a legitimate player in the telecom industry. In the past week, both Senet and GigSky announced they will add Helium's network to their own lineup of offerings. This means Helium's network is big enough – and real enough – to warrant interest from companies that either run their own networks (Senet) or aggregate services from those that do (GigSky).

"We as a community succeed when you feel like you can compete against the telecom world. That's what we're doing," Frank Mong, Helium's COO, told me. "Blockchain and cryptocurrency is so nebulous. Right? Most people don't understand what DeFi is or what NFTs [non-fungible tokens] are. It's kind of a different concept. But when you can take blockchain and use it to do something, that's very tangible. Like, for us, creating wireless networks."

He continued: "Imagine your parents, your family members, your friends can all become your own ISP or your own telco. [With Helium] you're now incented to do so. You go figure out what your backhaul needs to be. You go figure out those details. But you're willing to do it now because your incentive here is so powerful that it is worth the time. It's worth the effort. And I think that's what the telco world needs to wake up to ... the technology is here to empower you."

And based on some of the recent momentum behind Helium, Mong certainly seems to be right, at least from a certain point of view.

Pivoting to crypto

But let's back up. Helium was founded in 2013 by a number of executives including Shawn Fanning of Napster fame. Its goal was to build wireless networks. However, as Mong explained, the company pivoted several times before hitting a wall in 2017 – the company had enough money for just a few more months of operations.

The solution was cryptocurrency.

Using a cryptocurrency it created called HNT, Helium figured out a way to reward its users for building a wireless network. The company started with the LoRa standard for Internet of Things (IoT) communications, which works in a slice of the unlicensed 900MHz band. The equipment is relatively cheap, and the spectrum is free to use.

Today, Helium counts around 190,000 LoRa transmission sites in dozens of countries around the globe. More than 50,000 of those sites were activated in the past 30 days.

And here's the crazy thing: You can see all of Helium's transmission sites and users on its website, and how much money they've made so far. For example, Precise Clear Spider (which I suspect is not the person's real name) lives very close to me in Denver and has made $44 in the past 30 days by operating a LoRa transmitter.

Helium users get paid in the network’s HNT cryptocurrency based on the amount of traffic that travels over their transmission sites. The Helium customers generating that traffic span the gamut: Recent ones include international tracking and logistics provider Hoopo, smart parking company Nobel Systems and water leak detection provider NOWi.

These companies basically buy HNT in order to make use of the LoRa network that Helium's users are building.

Today, the HNT cryptocurrency is trading at around $18 with a market cap of almost $2 billion. According to one crypto-tracking source, it's ranked 61st in overall cryptocurrency value, below the likes of Bitcoin and Ethereum.

To be clear, Helium isn't the first company to attempt to encourage individual users to create their own wireless network. There have been a number of other attempts – ranging from Spain's Fon to Google's new Orion effort – to encourage individual Wi-Fi hotspot operators to aggregate their own global access network.

However, those efforts do not provide the clarity that Helium does, nor are they leveraging the blockchain technology that helps Helium to authenticate coverage areas and traffic settlements.

In fact, the power of a blockchain ledger is just now starting to trickle into the global wireless industry. For example, the GSMA trade association recently announced a new blockchain network designed for the global roaming and settlement process.

From LoRa to 5G

And here's the final part of Helium's story: It's getting ready to step into 5G. Helium and its partners are preparing to start shipping small cells that can transmit 5G signals in the unlicensed 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum band.

Based on pre-orders and overall demand, vendor FreedomFi is predicting the Helium 5G network could span fully 40,000 small cells by the end of 2022. That would make it bigger than Verizon's small cell network, which is expected to reach 30,000 by the end of this year.

Everyday smartphone users won't be able to roam onto Helium's 5G network. Instead, they will need a CBRS-capable phone and a special eSIM card to access the network. GigSky – an MVNO that aggregates telecom networks around the world – is the first company that plans to sell consumer and enterprise access to Helium's 5G network.

Ravi Rishy-Maharaj, GigSky's CEO, described Helium's 5G offering as a private wireless network that he's planning to sell. It's "just another network to our customers," he said, adding that GigSky was an early leader in the eSIM trend. eSIM technology is an important element of the Helium story because it allows customers to switch wireless network providers without installing a new physical SIM card in their phone.

To be clear, Helium's 5G network hasn't been turned on yet. And GigSky counts just a few hundred thousand customers across the world. Further, there's no way that a Helium 5G network operating in unlicensed CBRS spectrum will be comparable to a 5G network from the likes of Verizon or T-Mobile. Such networks span a wide range of frequencies, and benefit from high-powered transmissions and precise engineering designs.

However, there's no reason why other MVNOs and mobile providers can't add Helium's 5G network into their own offerings. For example, Charter Communications is planning to build its own 5G network in its CBRS spectrum with eSIM technology. It could potentially add Helium's network into the mix in order to reduce the amount of money it pays to Verizon for mobile services.

Indeed, Comcast already operates a kind of aggregated Wi-Fi network that's similar to the one Helium is building. Specifically, the Wi-Fi routers sold by Comcast to its customers are designed to also allow other Comcast users to roam onto them. The only real difference is that Comcast does not reward its users for providing those roaming services, whereas Helium does.

"I think the difference here – the secret sauce – is the incentive model," Helium's Mong told me. "I think that's the best way to think of it, as it's a different business model. What we've done is, we've used the blockchain technology as a means to create an incentive for any individual, anywhere in the world, to participate. And their participation is really providing wireless coverage, sharing their Internet backhaul."

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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