LoRaWAN, Network, IoT

Helium: An Internet by People, for Things

Even if you have just barely heard about the Internet of Things, you’ve probably come across forecasts about billions of connected devices taking over the world and multiplying endlessly. Those claims may sound arbitrary or inflated, but there’s some truth in them, nonetheless — the trend is fact, and our world is being increasingly filled with connected devices that are shaping our lifestyles, and our companies, whether we are aware of it or not.

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But that expansion isn’t granted, not only due to exogenous issues such as the worldwide chip shortage that has stalled many tech industries since the pandemic started, but also due to challenges inherent to IoT — for instance, how to connect all those devices economically and efficiently to the internet?

Solving that puzzle requires addressing things such as bandwidth, power, signaling, security, standards, and compatibility, all of which can be challenging even for large companies. It’s no wonder, then, that tackling that challenge on a global scale requires something special such as Helium’s ‘The People’s Network’, the largest, public, decentralized LoRaWAN network in the world.

What Nova Labs (formerly known as Helium Inc.) set out to do back in 2019 was to create a global and ubiquitous network for the Internet of Things by incentivizing people to build and maintain the network themselves. How? The network is blockchain-based and people who participate can benefit by earning HNT, Helium’s cryptocurrency — apart from feeling good about potentially connecting devices that prevent wildfires or monitor elderly people’s health.

For their part, people interested in the HNT rewards have to deploy and maintain ‘hotspots’, which are physical network devices (some of them look similar to domestic Wi-Fi modems) that act both as network miners and wireless access points for IoT devices around them.

In contrast to other blockchain projects where the benefit derived from using that technology and the role it plays is not entirely convincing, in Helium’s network the blockchain technology plays an integral part and serves as a great example of what can be achieved outside of the financial or video game spheres.

Multiple events are recorded in the blockchain, making connection and mining safe and transparent, but above everything else there’s one process that is worthy of attention, the ‘Proof of Coverage’ protocol. For the network to be successful, there must be a way to confirm that hotspots are indeed providing legitimate wireless connection and not just gaming the system. That’s why the blockchain is constantly triggering a process in which neighboring hotspots “challenge” each other to prove their location and network connectivity, while other hotspots serve as witnesses. This grants all the hotspots involved in that procedure (challenger, witnesses and the ‘challengee’) HNT rewards and ensures the reliability of the network.

For the network to be successful, there must be a way to confirm that hotspots are indeed providing legitimate wireless connection and not just gaming the system.

It’s worth noting that this type of mining is also much less energy-intensive than traditional mining rigs that rely on the computational power of GPUs or ASICs.

The appeal of the network

Although it launched in 2019, the network exploded last year, going from 14,797 hotspots on January 1, 2021, to 877.577 at the time of writing this (check this link for an updated number), with North America, Europe and Asia seeing the biggest expansion. So far, the actual usage of the network hasn’t grown at the same pace, with about 40% of the hotspots not transferring data with devices yet, but that shouldn’t be a cause for concern considering that the project is still in its infancy and that the demand for connection will keep increasing.

The ubiquity of such a network should be quite beneficial for people seeking to connect their devices, considering that hotspots can reach up to 200 times farther than Wi-Fi, that it's cheaper than cellular and less taxing in terms of power consumption (which increases the lifespan of devices).

As a decentralized network, Helium is encrypted and provides a high degree of security, but its decentralization goes beyond that:

  • The hotspots are owned by individuals all over the world. This, as we said, means that the network grows faster than it would if a company was building it.
  • Hotspots are made and sold by a growing list of companies. This should result in the price of hotspots going down or, at least, staying the same due to competition.
  • The network is governed and overseen by the community through a non-profit organization recently renamed to the Helium Foundation. Changes to the network, protocols or blockchain are decided collectively.

As for using the network, the standard procedure to connect devices requires registering and authenticating them on the Helium Console, and then paying based on data usage instead of a fixed plan. Those payments are made with Data Credits, a form of currency that is acquired by exchanging it for HNT.

Recently, however, Helium has teamed up with different platforms, including Ubidots, to offer the connection service through them, thus facilitating the whole process. This means that if you’re an Ubidots client interested in connecting to Helium’s network, you wouldn’t have to worry about creating a Helium Console account, registering devices on both platforms, setting up Helium integrations or dealing with Data Credits.

With active improvements such as that one, in just two years Helium has given us an exciting project that is poised to capture the attention of two fast-growing sectors such as crypto and IoT, while connecting, rewarding and making us feel good in the process.

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About Agustin Pelaez

Agustín has more than 10 years of hands-on experience in IoT Projects, including building a global IoT Startup (Ubidots) with over a thousand clients worldwide.