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Dish to use Helium's DIY 5G network

Dish Network said it plans to use the 5G network that startup Helium is creating; this sets the stage for Dish to expand its 5G coverage onto a network built by Helium's customers.

The move potentially puts more focus on Helium's efforts to finance the construction of wireless network infrastructure owned and operated by its customers who are paid with cryptocurrency.

But more broadly, the deal between Dish and Helium helps to upend the traditional network-buildout model whereby one company tightly controls the construction and design of a wireless network. Instead, Helium pays its users in cryptocurrency for installing and operating the transmitters for its network, payments generated by the traffic flowing over that network.

"As we build out Dish's 5G facilities-based network, we will continue to look for innovative technologies and business models that complement or support our wireless business," explained Chris Ergen, head of the Dish "office of innovation," in a release.

Putting things into context

At least for now, the Helium-powered element of Dish's forthcoming 5G network will likely be minuscule. Based on its 2019 agreement with T-Mobile and the US Department of Justice, Dish is on the hook to begin providing commercial 5G services across significant portions of the country starting next year. Already the company has been hiring hundreds of technicians to handle that work, which involves installing radios capable of broadcasting Dish's 5G signal atop potentially thousands of massive cell towers all over the country.

Helium, meantime, is working to expand its Internet of Things (IoT) network into the 5G sector. Helium's customers have already lit up around 240,000 LoRA-based IoT hotspots across 21,000 cities in North America, Europe and Asia. When Helium's customers – which now include the likes of Senet and Actility – make use of that network, Helium pays its hotspot owners in its Helium Network Tokens (HNTs) cryptocurrency.

Today, the company is working to implement a similar crypto-based DIY network buildout using 5G equipment from FreedomFi running in the unlicensed 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum band. FreedomFi is currently shipping out its first batch of 20,000 CBRS small cells for the effort.

Under Dish's agreement with Helium, Dish's potential 5G customers will be able to roam onto those Helium CBRS hotspots. However, based on the relatively diminutive coverage capabilities of Helium's CBRS hotspots, it's likely that Helium's 5G network won't be able to cover the broad geographic areas that Dish is required to cover under its agreement with the DoJ. That's likely why Dish's Ergen said the Helium network will "complement or support" Dish's existing network buildout.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained

Nonetheless, the fact that Dish is partnering with Helium certainly reflects the company's willingness to engage in new business models and network designs. But that comes as little surprise considering Dish's 5G buildout plan is much, much different than those employed by the likes of AT&T and Verizon.

Specifically, Dish is purchasing 5G radios from Taiwan's Microelectronics Technology Inc. (MTI) and Japan's Fujitsu – vendors that are a far cry from the Nokias, Ericssons and Samsungs that supply the established 5G network operators in the US. Further, Dish plans to run all of its network functions inside the Amazon Web Services cloud – another dramatic departure from the norm.

Thus, Dish's agreement with Helium could be viewed as a hedge: If Helium is successful, Dish can leverage its network for some extra coverage. If Helium is not, Dish can continue to proceed along the 5G buildout path it's already on.

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

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