The world of blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies is wrought with hyperbolic claims about prospective real-world use cases that never seem to pan out. This focus on hype over implementation is largely a symptom of the cart constantly being put before the horse. That is to say, most blockchain-based companies have their sites set on the future with a severe lack of attention paid to current-day utilization. We all understand that these types of technologies have tremendous potential, but it’s often difficult to fully grasp until we actually see them being used in our day-to-day life.
Helium is a bit of a rarity in this regard. Their LongFi (LoRaWAN) network is actively supported by over 430k hotspots around the globe. These hotspot devices act as “nodes” within the network and are currently being utilized by some major players in the world of IoT. Notably, Helium has partnered with Lime (scooters), Airly, and Salesforce to implement wireless network solutions for their IoT sensors. Most recently, they landed a deal with DISH to expand its 5G infrastructure, although the actual employment of that new network is slightly more abstract at the moment.
In this article, we’ll be taking a closer look at the various ways in which the Helium Network is actually being used at the moment. From smart scooters to air quality measurements to other enterprise-level implementations, Helium’s LongFi network is quickly becoming a practical solution for a wide range of businesses. In most cases, Helium isn’t necessarily enabling new technological developments but is instead allowing for major optimizations of the current IoT-based wireless communication paradigm. That being said, this revolutionary decentralized “People’s Network” will surely have life-changing applications that have yet to be actualized.
If you currently own/host a Helium Hotspot or are looking to install one soon, you’ve probably questioned the real-world legitimacy of the network itself. The truth is, the vast majority of hotspot owners probably won’t utilize Helium’s wireless communication solutions on any practical level. Instead, the bulk of you will simply participate in “The People’s Network” by transmitting data via your hotspot and receiving HNT tokens as your reward.
This doesn’t mean that expanding and developing the Helium Network is a fruitless endeavor. It’s important to remember that this wireless communications solution is LoRaWAN, meaning it’s designed for the low-powered transmission of small data packets. Put more plainly, Helium’s LongFi network is almost exclusively optimized for IoT sensor devices. It won’t enable you to stream Netflix or FaceTime with your family, but it does help companies like Lime, Airly, and Salesforce to create efficiencies in their IoT deployments.
Standard telecommunication providers like Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile, are all based around a traditional centralized cellular infrastructure. This means that they have large, privately-owned cell towers scattered across the globe which transmit radio waves containing data to and from your devices. This is how we communicate via phone calls, send text messages, stream videos, and interact with most digital forms of information while on the go.
In our homes or buildings, we generally use WiFi to communicate information to and from our various devices, aka utilize the Internet. At its most basic level, WiFi can essentially be viewed as a more powerful iteration yet less expansive version of cellular communication. The major difference between cell service and WiFi is the type of radio waves that transmit your data. WiFi most often uses either 2.4G or 5G radio frequencies which can send large amounts of data at a rapid speed, but only for relatively short distances. Cellular services can cover much wider areas and can potentially be as fast as WiFi depending on the context, yet they usually work with different frequencies and are much more expensive for data usage.
You can think of your WiFi router as a miniature cell tower inside of your home or building. It’s directly connected through wires to the larger telecommunication grids and then transmits signals wirelessly within a short range to your laptop, phone, Smart TV, etc… Cellular communications are essentially the same thing but expanded to the size of cities, states, or even countries.
Helium Hotspots work very similarly to WiFi routers, however, they use lower frequency radio waves to communicate less information across a much wider distance. In this way, they can provide coverage to a large area but are only able to transmit small packets of data at a time.
Imagine your WiFi router is a piece of dough. The wider you stretch it, the thinner it gets, and the fewer ingredients can fit inside of it before it breaks down. Helium Hotspots are essentially like a stretched-out version of standard WiFi routers. They provide more geographic coverage with less data being transmitted between each device.
This is the basic explanation of a LoRaWAN, which is another way of labeling Helium’s LongFi Network. It’s designed for transmitting small amounts of data and is perfectly suited for various IoT sensor solutions. For example, the types of IoT data that are currently being tracked on the Helium Network include GPS coordinates, basic air quality information, and standard device utilization.
As we stated above, Helium’s LongFi network isn’t necessarily allowing for major technological innovations as much as it is creating efficiencies within the previously existing wireless communication infrastructures. Basically, telecom providers that use standard cellular networks have historically been the only way to wirelessly connect devices without access to WiFi. This creates inefficiencies for many IoT-based companies that need to connect to the Internet for data transmission but often don’t require extensive cellular plans to do so.
In the traditional paradigm, companies like Lime or Airly would have to pay for a standard cellular service package for each of their devices which usually comes with a set amount of data and requires sim cards. This creates unnecessary costs considering most data plans are designed for mobile phone usage and IoT sensors communicate far less information. These costs also add up because telecom companies usually charge the same rate for a data plan regardless of whether that data is actually used.
Imagine paying for a high-data cellphone plan and only sending a few text messages per month without ever calling, streaming, or browsing the internet. That’s essentially what IoT-based companies have been forced to do for each and every one of their devices, creating avoidable costs that potentially reach the tens of millions per year. With Helium’s LongFi network, these same companies can pay for data only when their devices are utilized, can connect to their network without the use of costly sim cards or related fees, and have the ability to pool data across all of their devices to eliminate unnecessary individuation.
Lime was one of the first major players to partner with Helium back in 2019. They offer one of the most easily understood use cases for Helium’s LongFi network. With a fleet of smart scooters spread out across almost every major U.S. city, Lime was wasting countless amounts of money on unnecessarily robust data plans provided by traditional telecom companies.
The majority of data that each Lime scooter needs to transmit involves GPS coordinates and detection of usages, i.e. on/off and “duration of use”. Why should they have to pay for more extensive data plans when all they need is a small amount? Also, why pay for data when devices aren’t even being used? That’s akin to buying a Verizon plan and then leaving your phone in a drawer for the bulk of each month while occasionally sending a few text messages here and there. It didn’t make sense for Lime and so they decided to make the switch to Helium’s LongFi network solution.
Airly is an IoT company that monitors air quality in major cities throughout the globe. They were facing a similar issue to Lime in that they wanted to scale up the implementation of their devices without incurring the unnecessary added costs that traditional telecom connectivity would require. As stated by their CEO, Wiktor Warchalowski, Airly sees “The People’s Network as the future of connectivity and [is] proud to be a partner its global network.”
Lastly, Salesforce is a well-known CRM and sales automation platform that traditionally operates in the realm of software. Salesforce IoT Cloud is a subdivision of the larger Salesforce network which primarily offers IoT sensor solutions to optimize supply chains. Rather than build out their own wireless infrastructure or rely on traditional telecom companies, Salesforce realized they needed a one-stop solution for global connectivity that was private, secure, and reliable. They decided to use “the People’s Network” as their “service provider” and have since stated that “Helium provides the right mix of low power, high security, and robust coverage in urban locations.”
The current real-world utilizations of Helium’s LongFi network mostly involve the creation of financial efficiencies and wider coverage for IoT sensor companies. While these optimizations are incredibly important, they can primarily be seen as laying the groundwork for a flurry of potential innovative use cases that have yet to be imagined. Helium hosts one of the first and definitely the largest decentralized wireless network infrastructures in the world. They’re now expanding into the realm of 5G networks and will likely continue to iterate on device-to-device communication solutions in every significant way imaginable in the coming years.
So while we don’t necessarily know for certain how exactly the Helium Network will evolve, we do know that it’s a groundbreaking approach to wireless communication with current practical and efficient utilization from major clients like Lime, Airly, and Salesforce. Their 5G-based partnership with DISH marks another step towards actualized implementations of their network solutions.
The truth is, this new networking path has just recently opened up. We’re excited for the future of Helium, IoT solutions, and wireless communication as a whole. And you should be too.
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