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Helium aims to be 'largest cellular network' in US

As Helium begins to switch on its first 5G hotspots, the company clearly has broad ambitions for its entry into the cellular industry.

Specifically, Helium's CEO Amir Haleem took to Twitter over the holidays to tout the company's current global LoRa network coverage and to set an ambitious goal: to be the biggest cellular network operator in the United States in the next few years.

There are plenty of caveats to Haleem's statement. First, Haleem appears to be using the number of an operator's transmission sites as a measurement of the "biggest" operator. That's likely because Helium expects to count up to 40,000 5G small cells by the end of 2022. That would be more than the 30,000 Verizon ended 2021 with. It would also be within spitting distance of the 110,000 total macro cell towers that T-Mobile operates as it merges its operations with Sprint's network.

Already Helium counts more than 400,000 LoRa transmission sites – for low-powered, slow-speed Internet of things (IoT) services – around the globe.

But the number of transmission sites within a network is not the same as a network's coverage area. For example, Verizon operates an estimated 65,000 macro cell towers to cover the entire United States with wireless service. That's because such towers often stand 100 feet tall and broadcast signals in spectrum bands that can cover miles and miles of geography.

The 5G small cells that Helium is currently supporting are roughly the size of a desktop computer, are primarily designed to support indoor coverage areas, and can be installed by everyday users. FreedomFi, the company building Helium's small cells, is testing outdoor small cells that may cover wider geographic areas, but has not yet started shipping those small cells.

FreedomFi said it is testing an outdoor 5G small cell near its offices in Boulder, Colorado. (Source: FreedomFi)
FreedomFi said it is testing an outdoor 5G small cell near its offices in Boulder, Colorado.
(Source: FreedomFi)

Finally, the spectrum band that Helium's 5G network uses – the unlicensed 3.5GHz CBRS band – doesn't support the same broad power levels and propagation characteristics as the 700MHz and 600MHz lowband spectrum used by the likes of Verizon and T-Mobile. Signals in lowband spectrum often can cover far more geographic territory than signals in midband spectrum like the CBRS band. Further, FCC rules currently prohibit CBRS network operators from increasing the power levels of their transmissions in order to cover bigger areas.

Nonetheless, interest around Helium continues to increase. The company is using cryptocurrency payments to encourage everyday users to purchase and operate its network equipment. Those payments are contingent on the amount of data traffic passing over that equipment. Helium is working with companies like Senet and GigSky to attempt to generate customer traffic on its network.

Helium recently raised $110 million in investments from cryptocurrency venture capital heavyweights like Andreessen Horowitz. The company's cryptocurrency – HNT – is now trading at around $40, having risen from just $1 a year ago.

And investors – along with Helium's CEO – are definitely taking a competitive stance. Ali Yahya of Andreessen Horowitz said recently that Helium has an opportunity to "transform the way we connect" and to "challenge centralized incumbents."

Of course, there are plenty of companies with similarly grand ambitions in the telecom industry. For example, Starry launched in 2016 with plans to eventually cover the world with broadband, but today it counts around 48,000 customers across a handful of markets. Similarly, LightSquared at one point counted more than 30 customers for the LTE network it planned to build across the US before it fell into bankruptcy. And a number of companies – from Republic Wireless to Google – had hoped that seamless Wi-Fi roaming would dramatically cut down the cost of cellular connections. That kind of roaming remains mostly unsupported.

Whether Helium lives up to the grand ambitions of its CEO remains to be seen.

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

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