Wireless networks aren’t sexy, and they’re certainly not transparent. That could soon change. Telcos have controlled the communications stack, and have had users at their mercy for decades. But the internet has completely transformed in that time, now hosting 4K videos as well as millions of IoT sensors, and some are questioning whether telcos are fit to serve the next generation of internet users.
So what if the very infrastructure and business model of telecoms could be put into the hands of the people that use it, to create a flexible, open version of wireless networking?
Opening up, straight from the source
Helium, a San Francisco-based company building a decentralized wireless network, wants to be the open-source insurgent that breaks up the telco party, by removing the baked-in bureaucracies and aging infrastructure from the equation. “The wireless infrastructure portion of the internet is still horribly centralized and commercialized, like the initial days of the internet,” says Amir Haleem, CEO and co-founder of Helium, “when [open source software] came along it allowed the internet to flourish.” Haleem recently explained to me his vision for Helium’s decentralized wireless network enthusiastically and with open source success firmly in mind: “I think of Helium like a prototype for this kind of infrastructure: what if someone could stick a box in their window, turn it on, and become their own cell tower all of a sudden… I hope this has started a movement towards people realizing you can do this in an open-source way without a big telco carrier.” This decentralized, open-source network utilizes LoRa technology in the sub-GHz unlicensed spectrum (beneath the GSMA licensed spectrum of 3G, 4G and 5G) which allows for a very wide range for very small data transfers. The Helium network takes this technology and applies it to a multitude of peer-to-peer ‘Hotspots’ – “a combined wireless access point and a cryptocurrency miner” says Haleem – that allows users to host wireless devices on their network and earn cryptocurrency (Helium’s own currency, $HNT) for doing so.
Just another block in the chain
Clearly, alongside grand ambitions to revolutionize the internet (Helium brands itself as “The People’s Network”), Haleem understands that egalitarianism also needs to be enticing. “In the last two or three years we started looking at how to incentivize this idea,” says Haleem, “think AirBnB or Uber for telcos, if I have an empty room, power and internet why would I not leverage it to use it as a network tower.” Setting up a Helium Hotspot network affords the owner a small payment for each sensor or device connected to it, and because each Hotspot and connection is recorded on the blockchain it is near impossible to spam the network with virtual machines in order to disproportionately monetize the system. The blockchain record that underpins the network does ensure complete transparency, and it also provides greater security and reliability: “the encryption of the data packet happens somewhere between the sensor and the company server [identified by an organizational unique identifier, or OUI] – the Hotspots have no way of identifying an individual packet, they can only see the plain text identifier of where to send it,” explains Haleem.
Privacy for the people
Trust and transparency are important to Helium. Besides basing their decentralized network on the inherently open and irrefutable blockchain, the idea behind Helium itself is that centralization and commercialization has led to inflexibility and opacity of telcos, which has eroded trust. Haleem is unequivocal when it comes to data privacy: Telcos and ISPs wield too much influence over your data and ability to connect, with no real accountability. “You never really understand their motives and you see constant breaches of trust where ISPs [internet service providers] are found to be selling your browsing history,” says Haleem, “and so some people are questioning whether [telcos and ISPs] should have a place in the future of wireless networking at all.”
Carriers, or mobile network operators (MNOs), and ISPs have taken advantage of users’ dependency by locking them into long contracts, overcharging for operational costs, and, as Haleem points out, selling your data – but if telcos can no longer provide the service users need, the dependency they take advantage of might not be around much longer. Because telcos are set up to serve consumers, “IoT has become the most underserved area of telecoms, period,” says Haleem. However, he also notes that “telcos are asking us about using [Helium] to deploy millimeter-wave 5G because [they] can’t afford to implement all those base stations,” suggesting that telcos are struggling to satisfy the radically different needs of both consumers and IoT users.
The two faces of telecoms
Telecoms is set up to cater entirely to consumers, providing ever greater speeds and coverage (by building more base stations), but telco contracts are too restrictive and untrustworthy. Telcos also do not provide enough flexibility on cost or coverage for enterprises using IoT devices (and cannot provide the low-power and high range that IoT is moving towards) but incumbent players like Helium may not provide the scale or peace-of-mind required.
Because of this divide, the IoT telecoms space has become hotly contested, and there are now many options for companies who don’t want to be locked into an operator contract, and who want to keep their existing devices active without having to acquire a dozen or more Helium Hotspots.
While Helium is providing a completely novel way to build a network, and has truly opened up the space just as the open source movement did for the internet, it is unlikely to be a one-size-fits-all technology. Part two of this article will dive into the world of enterprise connectivity, and explore how the future of telecoms could be transformed for consumers, IoT users, and the largest enterprises.
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