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Digital Infrastructure

With T-Mobile MVNO deal, Helium Mobile to be 'world's first crypto carrier'

Nova Labs on Tuesday announced it inked an MVNO agreement with T-Mobile. The company said the move paves the way for it to launch commercial mobile smartphone services under the Helium Mobile brand starting in the first quarter of next year.

Nova Labs said its MVNO customers will be able to access two networks: T-Mobile's existing 5G network and the do-it-yourself, Helium-branded 4G network that Nova is working to build through cryptocurrency rewards. That network currently stretches across almost 5,000 transmission sites in locations scattered around the US.

Helium Mobile will be "the world's first crypto carrier," explained Boris Renski of Nova Labs. Renski joined the company through its recent acquisition of his company, FreedomFi.

Helium Mobile brings a number of new and noteworthy elements into the US wireless industry, from cryptocurrency rewards to decentralized wireless (DeWi) infrastructure. But Renski acknowledged that it's still early days for the company, and that Helium's growing 4G network won't be a meaningful substitute for existing, commercial 5G networks anytime soon.

(Source: Artur Marciniec / Alamy Stock Photo)
(Source: Artur Marciniec / Alamy Stock Photo)

Helium's 4G network doesn't provide "the type of density that will allow us to provide disruptive economics from day one," he said. Instead, Renski said Nova is hoping to eventually gain up to a million Helium Mobile customers – that milestone ought to generate enough momentum around the company's DeWi effort to create real velocity.

Renski also explained that Nova's new agreement with T-Mobile is a relatively standard MVNO deal. This means that T-Mobile will provide Nova with wholesale access to its network, but T-Mobile won't make use of the 4G network Helium is working to build in the unlicensed 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum band.

Helium's next step

When it was called Helium, Nova rose to prominence on a LoRa-based wireless network for Internet of things (IoT) services running in a sliver of the unlicensed 900MHz band. The network was built by everyday users, funded through cryptocurrency and managed through a blockchain. Today it comprises almost 1 million LoRa hotspots across the world, covering almost 10% of the world's population.

Now, Nova is working to expand its second wireless network, this one running in the CBRS band and targeting smartphones. Also built by users, the network currently counts roughly 4,500 active cell sites. FreedomFi, Bobcat, Cal-Chip, Baicells and Moso Labs are among the companies that built the radios for the network, which cost anywhere from $1,500 to $5,000.

Helium Mobile represents Nova's first commercial offering built on its CBRS network (Dish Network and GigSky have also signed on to potentially sell access to the network). On its website, the company promises to offer a range of Helium Mobile pricing plans starting at $5 per month for 1GB of high-speed data. Customers would primarily use T-Mobile's network but could switch over to Helium connections where they are available.

Helium Mobile customers also have the option to earn Helium cryptocurrency by agreeing to share their network usage information with Nova via Helium Mobile's smartphone app. Renski said the company will use that data to conduct coverage checks on Helium's CBRS network. It could also use the data to determine where other CBRS sites might be needed.

"This model will only work if the useful coverage is rewarded," Renski explained. "We expect this model will work."

Helium Mobile will initially require customers to bring their own phone to the service, but could eventually sell phones specifically designed for the service.

DeWi momentum

Helium has helped usher in a new sector in the wireless industry dubbed DeWi. Other players in the space include Althea, World Mobile Group, Airwaive, Pollen Mobile and Hexagon Wireless.

Pollen Mobile appears to be developing a very similar offering to Helium Mobile, though it currently only counts around 600 transmission sites and hasn't announced an MVNO partner.

These DeWi companies hope to develop a profitable networking model whereby users are rewarded with cryptocurrency for buying, activating and maintaining their own network transmitters. The setup stands in contrast to how companies like Dish Network and Verizon spend billions of their own dollars to build and update their own wireless networks.

However, there are clearly challenges in the space. Nova Labs' first wireless effort, its LoRa-based IoT network, generated just $6,500 in revenue in June. That seems small, considering the company covers almost 10% of the world's population.

Further, there are some indications that interest in Helium's LoRa network has been declining in recent months, after peaking earlier this year. Renski argued the situation was in part due to an uneven distribution of IoT hotspots within the Helium network. "Areas such as San Francisco, Austin, and other large cities have a huge over-saturation of IoT hotspots. As the network continues to grow and mature it’s likely we’ll see an equilibrium of supply and demand be reached," he argued.

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

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