As Helium begins to fire up its first 5G hotspots, the company clearly has high ambitions for its entry into the cellular industry.
Specifically, Helium CEO Amir Haleem took on twitter during the holidays to tout the company’s current global LoRa network coverage and to set itself an ambitious goal of being the largest cellular network operator in the United States for the next several years.
there is a very good chance that @helium will be the largest cellular network in the United States over the next two years https://t.co/jmEJdYsr0F
– amir helium (🎈, 🎈) (@amirhaleem) 22 December 2021
There are a lot of caveats to Haleem’s statement. First, Haleem appears to use the number of transmission sites of an operator as a measure of the “largest” operator. This is probably because Helium expects to have as many as 40,000 small 5G cells by the end of 2022. That would be more than the 30,000 that Verizon finished 2021 with. It would also be a short distance from the 110,000 total cellular macro-towers that T-Mobile operates as it merges operations with Sprint’s network.
Already Helium has more than 400,000 LoRa transmission sites ?? for low-speed, low-power Internet of Things (IoT) services ?? around the globe.
But the number of transmission sites within a network is not the same as the coverage area of a network. For example, Verizon operates approximately 65,000 cellular macro towers to cover the entire United States with wireless service. This is because these towers are often 100 feet tall and broadcast signals in spectrum bands that can span miles and miles of geography.
The small 5G cells currently supported by Helium 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 that manufactures small helium cells, tests small outside cells which can cover larger geographies, but has yet to start shipping these small cells.
Finally, the spectrum band used by Helium’s 5G network ?? the CBRS 3.5 GHz band without license ?? does not support the same power levels and propagation characteristics as the 700 MHz and 600 MHz low band spectrum used by Verizon and T-Mobile. Low-band spectrum signals can often cover much more geographic area than mid-band spectrum signals such as the CBRS band. Additionally, FCC rules currently prohibit CBRS network operators from increasing the power levels of their transmissions to cover larger areas.
Nevertheless, interest in helium continues to grow. The company uses cryptocurrency payments to encourage everyday users to purchase and operate its network equipment. These payments depend on the amount of data traffic passing through this equipment. Helium works with companies like Senet and GigSky to try to generate customer traffic on its network.
Helium recently raised $ 110 million in investment from cryptocurrency venture capital heavyweights like Andreessen Horowitz. The company’s cryptocurrency ?? HNT ?? is now trading at around $ 40, after just $ 1 a year ago.
And the investors ?? with the CEO of Helium ?? definitely adopt a competitive position. Ali Yahya of Andreessen Horowitz recently said that Helium has the opportunity to “transform the way we connect” and “challenge centralized incumbents”.
Of course, there are many companies with equally big ambitions in the telecommunications industry. For example, Starry was launched in 2016 with the intention of eventually covering the world with broadband, but today has around 48,000 customers in a handful of markets. Likewise, LightSquared at one point had over 30 customers for the LTE network it planned to build across the United States before going bankrupt. And a number of companies ?? from Republic Wireless to Google ?? had hoped that seamless Wi-Fi roaming would drastically reduce the cost of cellular connections. This type of roaming is generally not supported.
It remains to be seen whether Helium is up to the great ambitions of its CEO.
?? Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G and Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano