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AI/Automation

Helium, FreedomFi prepare massive DIY 5G network

FreedomFi and its manufacturing partners are in the midst of building 20,000 small cells that will form the basis of what company CEO Boris Renski expects will be "the largest, CBRS-based neutral-host networks in the US."

"We're fairly certain there's going to be sufficient demand" for the network, he said.

To put that figure into perspective, Verizon is hoping to operate around 30,000 small cells in its own network by the end of this year.

The FreedomFi network will introduce a new and very different 5G business model into the US market: Do it yourself (DIY), backed by cryptocurrency. FreedomFi's customers plan to activate their own 5G transmitters using radio equipment purchased from the company's partners working in the unlicensed 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum band. The resulting network can either be used for private purposes (for example, a hotel can build it for its own employees) or it can be opened up to other FreedomFi customers and partners, thus creating a kind of community-owned roaming setup.

It's that second use case that really represents a new element in the telecommunications industry. FreedomFi has partnered with a startup called Helium that essentially rewards people for setting up their own network. It does so by paying them in its own cryptocurrency: Helium Network Tokens (HNTs). Meaning, if one user roams onto another user's network, Helium pays that network operator for the traffic.

Helium for years has been operating this kind of cryptocurrency-backed DIY network using the LoRa standard for Internet of Things (IoT) communications. (Indeed, IoT writer Stacey Higginbotham said she has made $15,000 with her Helium "miner.")

Now, with FreedomFi's equipment, Helium is expanding that structure into the 5G realm.

Renski, of FreedomFi, said that the companies received 10,000 small cell orders in the four days of pre-sales after they announced their plan in April. He said FreedomFi's manufacturing partners, which he declined to name, are in the process of building 20,000 5G-ready small cells the company plans to ship this year. Renski said shipments of those small cells are expected to start sometime this month and continue through the rest of 2021.

Renski wouldn't identify any of the customers who purchased FreedomFi's small cells, but said they include individuals and companies. Importantly, he said that several unnamed MVNOs plan to support roaming onto the network that FreedomFi is supplying. Meaning, the customers who purchase and install FreedomFi's equipment stand to get paid through Helium's cryptocurrency for that MVNO traffic onto their 5G sites.

However, FreedomFi's sites won't be open to everyone with a CBRS-capable phone. Instead, each user's service provider – whether that's Verizon or Comcast or Consumer Cellular or some other carrier – must first implement a roaming arrangement with FreedomFi and Helium.

Renski said FreedomFi is currently selling an indoor small cell for around $1,500 that should cover roughly 3x the range of a Wi-Fi hotspot and can support speeds up to 150 Mbit/s. He said the company expects to launch an outdoor small cell for around $2,000 that can provide connections up to several miles away, and can support speeds up to 220 Mbit/s. Both gadgets require a connection to a FreedomFi gateway that costs around $1,000. Renski said installing the gadgets is more like installing a Wi-Fi access point than a massive macro cell tower.

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

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