“What Helium has created in this blockchain is truly a unique incentive. That is, the only incentive of its kind that can start a wireless network creation model without a lot of money. It is pretty cheap and simple to do. And, that hasn’t been done before…..It is something that can apply to all wireless networks.”
From LoRaWAN to 5G #
Part one of this series describes the growth of the LongFi LoRaWAN network and its rapid growth from zero to 112k+ Hotspots in less than a year. The amazing feat is that an organization of approximately 40 people is creating a telecom infrastructure that is competitive with telecom behemoths. According to Mong, the revelation for the Helium team was in 2020 when they realized that they couldn’t be rent-seekers and that they had to make it easy for others to participate in the Helium ecosystem.
Now, that same group, along with others, are applying that same philosophy and technology to potentially change the deployment of 5G. In a nutshell, FreedomFi is planning on using the Helium cryptocurrency to pay people to host CBRS (see this Viodi View article for a CBRS overview) and, in 2022, WiFi gateways and radios. In turn, FreedomFi will aggregate these individually-owned cell sites to provide data off-load services to Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) and Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs).
HIP 27 – Foundation for a New Network #
On February 27th, 2021, Boris Renski wrote the Helium Improvement Proposal 27 (HIP 27). His description of HIP 27 is that of an experiment to build a few clusters of urban CBRS infrastructure in a handful of locations.
The goal is to in-fill existing coverage areas of mobile network operators (MNOs) and virtual MNOs. The expectation is that the Helium Neutral host network would augment cellular capacity in indoor and/or highly trafficked areas. FreedomFi sees this expanding into WiFi, calling it a decentralized alternative to Google’s Orion Wifi.
The proposal also suggests another use case is for non-CBRS bands, allowing for the “urban densification of cellular networks.” One implication of this statement is that the network might eventually allow last-mile broadband access via millimeter wave spectrum.
But beyond the technology, this document is fundamentally about providing the economic foundation to create a new network using the Helium blockchain. The HIP 27 proposal
“suggests an economic mechanism to support higher new wireless protocols on Helium network, starting with LTE and 5G in CBRS spectrum band.”
HIP 27 introduces a chain variable that accounts for the nuances of data type and geographic location and that will function as a conversion ratio of Data Credits to data packets. That is, HIP 27 recognizes that Data Credits might need to adjust to market conditions. For their initial pilot, the price for backhaul is 50 cents per Gigabyte or $.00000003 per LTE packet of 66 bytes.
Open to the Core #
Renski, a co-founder of Mirantis and founder of FreedomFi, is a self-described “believer in all things open source.” Inferring from FreedomFi’s website and blog posts, it seems that FreedomFi’s mission is “to lower network operations costs and help connect the next billion people.” It will do so by combining the software-centric nature of 5G, with open source principles, and with unlicensed (e.g. WiFi) or licensed by rule spectrum (e.g. CBRS) and enabling individuals or small businesses to deploy small cells and get enumerated in HNT.
Central to their mission is the open-source Magma core, which is a collaboration between the OpenStack Foundation, the Open Air Interface, and the Telecom Infra Project. Magma’s design supports 4G LTE, 5G Stand-Alone, and Enterprise Wi-Fi networks. It has three major components that interface to the radio networks, network operations, and an operator’s core
- Access Gateway provides network services and policy enforcement and an evolved packet core (EPC).
- Orchestrator for securely configuring and monitoring the wireless network
- The Federation Gateway serves as a proxy between the Access Gateway and the operator’s network. It makes the radio network look like part of the MNO’s network by facilitating functions such as “authentication, data plans, policy enforcement, and charging.
FreedomFi’s commercial implementation of Magma centers on the FreedomFi Gateway appliance. This device includes a tested and hardened version of the Magma software, the Helium software, and a LoRa radio. These latter two capabilities allow it to double as a Helium Hotspot. The specification sheet indicates that the appliance can handle over 600 connected users.
Although their gateway can operate with CBRS radios from multiple providers, FreedomFi suggests that they are working with a couple of vendors to certify their radios. FreedomFi states that people should wait to buy the CBRS radios as they will be certifying and bundling third-party radios with their gateways to lower overall costs.
A Crowd-Sourced Wireless Network #
According to FreedomFi’s application to be a Helium-approved manufacturer, the estimated price of its Helium gateway is $500 with a Q3/Q4 2021 release. In addition to the gateway, one also needs to purchase a CBRS radio that FreedomFi estimates will cost be between $500 to $5,000. Additional upfront costs to consider are permitting and installation, which requires a Certified Professional Installer [Question 16 in the Helium Community update document suggests a few approaches to address the CPI certification].
A wired connection to the Internet with at least a 50 Mbps downlink and 20 Mbps uplink capability is necessary, according to the FreedomFi FAQs. FreedomFi suggests the maximum download is approximately 150 Mbps.¹ Of course, the Terms of Service from the Internet provider must allow for the resale of data, which most likely precludes most residential ISP offerings [Queston 21 in their Community Update document argues that this is a gray area from a Terms of Service standpoint since the Hotspot owner isn’t technically reselling a data connection].
The initial thrust is heavily trafficked, indoor locations where mobile network operators have problems providing reliable coverage. Indoor applications simplify the installation for the cell site owner. FreedomFi is working with several mobile networking operators in the U.S for data off-load agreements and hopes to make announcements of who those partners are before September 2021.
From an economics standpoint, one has to consider their location and the amount of expected traffic. Assuming FreedomFi can negotiate $0.50 per gigabyte for the cell site owner, approximately 2,000 to 11,000 Gigabytes of data transfer would be needed to recover the upfront capital of $1,000 to $5,500.
This would mean at least a 20-month nominal payback on capital, assuming 100 gigabytes per month of data transfer. This doesn’t include other costs, such as the upfront installation, the Internet connection or electricity, nor does it include revenue from being part of the Helium LoRaWAN.
Wait and See #
As with Helium-enabled LoRaWAN units, there is a waitlist for FreedomFi’s first Helium gateways, which are due to ship in September. These first units will essentially be part of a commercial pilot for the concept, as the HIP 27 document clearly states that
“The goal of the experiment is to build a few clusters of CBRS infrastructure around a handful of urban locations and open such network to MNOs and MVNOs to offload their existing data traffic…It is expected that operators roaming into Helium neutral host network will have existing wireless coverage within the area and will use Helium network for augmenting cellular capacity indoors or in highly trafficked areas.”
It is an interesting model, as there needs to be both an RF and economic analysis to understand where to locate a hotspot. There are also ongoing operating costs, such as access to the Spectrum Access System, apparently covered by FreedomFi.² Time will tell whether this experiment will turn into a network that provides wireless data infill for hard-to-reach locations.³
Stay tuned for part 3 of this series where we look at another approach to building broadband via blockchain. Part 1 of this series is here.
¹If enough people are simultaneously using a given cell site and the individual speed may fall below the FCC’s current definition of 25 Mbps downstream/25 Mbps upstream. Of course, this definition will most likely increase as Congress decides the definition of broadband in its infrastructure legislation.
² For private, non-Helium networks, the list price for accessing the CBRS Spectrum with FreedomFi’s help is “$20/rad/mon” (this must mean $20 per radio per month). This could get expensive as the number of radios increase and would provide an incentive for FreedomFi to ensure that installations only occur in areas justified by a minimum amount of expected network traffic. FreedomFi partners with Google and Federated Wireless for access to their Spectrum Access Systems.
It’s not clear how FreedomFi will account for the cost of the SAS when using the Helium Network. Question 17 in their community update document suggests monthly SAS costs of between $5 to $15 per month, depending upon the type of radio and whether it is an indoor or outdoor deployment.
Note, SAS are databases and seem like great candidates to be put into a blockchain. In the book Blockchain for Dynamic Spectrum Management, YC Liang discusses how the combination of blockchain and cognitive radios could create real-time markets for spectrum access. It could also allow the creation of secondary markets in those spots where licensed users might not be taking full advantage of their spectrum.
³In this December 2017 post, the founder of NYC Mesh, a community-based wireless network based in New York City, is skeptical of the combination of blockchain and wireless and calls it “a complete waste of time.” He lists some 30 websites promoting the idea of blockchain and mesh and suggests some of them are ICO (Initial Coin Offering) scams. That said, it includes companies, such as GoTenna, which first and foremost is a mesh hardware provider, as seen in this ViodiTV 2018 interview with the GoTenna cofounder. Notably not on the list is Helium, as it hadn’t pivoted to its blockchain approach at that point.