Helium's hotspots use the startup's "LongFi" wireless technology, which is based on the LoRa (Long Range) specification that operates in the unlicensed 915MHz frequency in the US. The LongFi protocol offers a range of one to ten miles (depending on environment), can send and receive data packets of up to 20 kilobytes, and has a battery life of a year or more, the company claims.
Users have set up the Helium hotspots in more than 425 US cities. Currently, the largest concentration of Helium nodes is in the San Francisco area, but hotspots are located from New York to Honolulu, Hawaii.
Owners that buy the Helium hotspot get to operate the point-to-point (P2P) network to track and monitor early Helium-based devices such as the InvisiLeash dog tracker and a solar-powered city pollution monitor (SPCPM).
Aside from the dog tracker, these initial devices are generally not commercial products, but gadgets that people can build themselves. To help commercialize their technology, Helium has launched a software development kit (SDK) and is announcing integration with Google cloud, Microsoft cloud and Blynk's IoT development platform.
Helium says that hotspot owners can earn a new cryptocurrency, called Helium, for building the network and transferring IoT device data. Helium has designed a blockchain around a self-verifying network of gateways/hotspots that provides message provenance, microtransactions, and open access to anyone.
For providing users with the building blocks needed to create a nationwide IoT network without help from telcos, the company refers to itself as "The People's Network." "The next big American land grab is IoT network ownership to connect small devices like pet trackers and water-quality sensors beyond the reach of WiFi," Helium says in a statement. The company claims that just 50 to 100 hotspots will be needed to provide coverage for an entire city.
Previous efforts to put up data connectivity networks without the participation of any US telcos meant deploying WiFi mesh networks that covered blocks or small sections of cities. Starting in the early 2000s, idealistic "freenet" providers showed how to extend the range of free 802.11b WiFi networks using a simple Pringles can. This initial idealism grew into a business -- involving Cisco and other, now mostly defunct, industry players. The WiFi mesh movement has largely died out, and is just an echo of an optimistic tech past.
Helium has latched onto IoT and IoT devices as a way for its "entrepreneurs" to create a new kind of low-power, low-speed network across the States. The technology's cellular rivals will be narrowband-IoT LTE, as well as other LoRa variants.
NB-IoT is now supported by all four major mobile carriers in the US. To date, however, few customers have been announced as using the low-power, wide-area (LPWA) service.
Helium, co-founded by Shawn Fanning, developer of Napster, is funded to the tune of $51 million by Google Ventures, Khosla Ventures and FirstMark.
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— Dan Jones, Mobile Editor, Light Reading