Is LongFi the Next Wireless Revolution?

Helium built the biggest wireless network you’ve never heard of

Your beloved spaniel, Charlie, is lost. He’s not chipped and he’s not in the back yard and he’s not on your block. The dog is gone, and it’s been over a week. An app on your phone, though, notifies you that Charlie’s dog collar tracker pinged a network a few towns away.

You put that tracker on Charlie a year ago, but the low-powered device is still working, and while Charlie wasn't near a Wi-Fi hub or cell tower, the tracker found an unusual wide area network powered by devices in the windows of people’s homes. You don’t care how it works; you’re just happy to have Charlie back home.

It’s a scenario that, while it sounds far-fetched, is now more plausible than ever.

Helium logo superimposed over a cityscape
 Lifewire / Nusha Ashjaee

IoT and Our Low-Powered Sensor Future

There are, by some measures, more than 30 billion Internet of Things (IoT) devices in use around the world. Virtually all of them live on Wi-Fi and cellular networks, but a small number, mostly tracking devices, are communicating in essentially a third way, on a LongFi network powered by Helium’s small, consumer hot spots. And if Helium has its way, the LongFi network will change the way millions of low-powered devices communicate and how widely-distributed networks are built.

Even though Helium has been around for 6 years, I’d never heard of it and hesitated to accept a CES meeting with CEO and Co-Founder Amir Haleem. The concept, though—a peer-to-peer wide area wireless network with a crypto-currency angle—was intriguing. Plus, the company was co-founded by Napster founder Shawn Fanning.

IoT Growth Stats
IoT device growth is expected to be meteoric.  Statista

Fanning is like the father of disruptive, consumer-based peer-to-peer networking. Napster was wildly successful at the turn of the millennium until music piracy laws basically put him and it out of business. Even so, peer-to-peer technology, which lets systems communicate directly instead of through an intermediary server while at the same time creating and supporting the communication network, still has enormous potential.

Over the last few years, Helium has turned that potential into the Helium LongFi network, which uses $500 Helium Hotspots to build a network that low-powered devices can use to communicate, check in with a larger network, and for the consumers that host them, mine crypto currency. The devices plug into your home router and connect to an app for management, but the communication is almost all to the outside as each Hotspot looks for others in the neighborhood to build the peer-to-peer network.

LongFi Benefits include:

  • Low power
  • Encryption
  • No monthly fees
  • Great range
  • Simple hardware
  • Not controlled by the major telcos

“The idea of Helium,” Haleem explained over eggs and bacon, “is really [that] we built something analogous to a cellular network, but it's designed for low power things.”

Building such a network on traditional Wi-Fi would be impossible because of the communication platform’s limited range. Cellular has the reach but the infrastructure is prohibitively expensive. 4G and 5G are also much more bandwidth than these low-powered systems need.

Where 4G measures throughput in megabits per second, LongFi is 1-to-20 kilobits per second. This is effective for location pings, tracking, and possibly text messaging.

Amir Haleem
Amir Haleem is CEO and Co-Founder of Helium.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff)

Why Do We Need This?

A low-powered, long-range, basically ubiquitous network could benefit consumers and businesses alike.

For consumers, Haleem explained, there still isn’t, for example, a great solution for tracking lost dogs. The tracking collars are expensive and “you've got to recharge these things every week or maybe every couple of weeks if you're lucky. There are data costs. You gotta pay 10 bucks a month or whatever for the cellular plans.”

In the LongFi world, there might be a low-cost, watch battery-powered tracking chip that can talk to the Helium network without incurring any network charges.

Businesses like Nestle already use Helium to track their water bottle delivery business. Low-powered sensors check in with the Helium network to let Nestle know about usage and when it's time to deliver more water.

Building a Network

In order to work, a Helium Network needs a least a few hundred installed hotspots to create a viable LongFi network. But how did Helium, which has already sold out of its first 3,500 units, convince consumers in 400 cities across the U.S. to install these devices?

Helium Hotspot
The Helium Hotspot communicates with other hotspots on a low-powered network. It also mines cryptocurrency.  Helium

Building such a network, even without the infrastructure overhead of LTE or 5G is not easy, but Helium cooked up an unusual solution. The company encourages consumers to put a Helium Hotspot in their home by making them a participant in the economics of the network, which is where Blockchain comes in.

In addition to helping create the LongFi network, the Helium Hotspots are cryptocurrency mining systems and, depending on how third parties use the encrypted network, their hotspots may mine cryptocurrency in the form of Helium Tokens. The cryptocurrency collection is tracked in the Helium app. Granted, a Helium Token currently has no value, but someday, possibly depending on the scale of the Helium LongFi network, it may. 

That pitch was, somewhat surprisingly, enough to attract a couple hundred crypto enthusiasts in Austin, Texas (the network went live last summer). Haleem told me they also had no trouble finding takers enmeshed in the IoT world.

Helium is very careful not to market Helium Hotspots as a way to make extra money, though. “We at no point have ever tried to suggest to people that this is an ATM they put in their house. It's not,” said Haleem, who spent most of career in the video game industry (and was once a World-class Quake player). Which means Helium Hotspot owners are going on faith that there’ll be a payoff in the distant future.

Unlike other Blockchain plays, Helium did not pre-sell tokens (the company has Venture Capital backing) and they didn’t start building the system as a crypto play.

“Originally, it was never a thing that we set out to do,” said Haleem. “I think the key is, the point of cryptocurrencies, is that you get to do something that was basically impossible to do or illegal to do any other way.”

Low Powering the Future

As Helium has been quietly expanding its network, with clusters of American-made Helium Hotspots sitting in windows of many of the major metropolitan cities across the U.S. and preparing to expand rapidly with more affordable Chinese-built hotspots in the near future, Amazon has shown interesting in building out a low-power IoT network system of its own.

We at no point have ever tried to suggest to people that this is an ATM they put in their house. It's not.

Last fall, the company introduced Sidewalk, a 900 MHz communication system that is supposed to supplement Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, extending beyond where your local network cannot reach to ensure connectivity for, among other things, smart speakers and, yes, smart dog collars. As of this moment, it’s a protocol that they may integrate into other existing Amazon Echo and Ring devices and not separate hardware solution like Helium.

Despite the differences, the two networks are built on the same notion. “There were supposed to be sensors everywhere, like food was supposed to be safer, drugs were supposed to be safer. I was supposed to be able to track anything anywhere. That never materialized and why it never materialized is a lack of a network designed for those kinds of things,” argued Haleem.

So What

Current network technologies, including 5G, cannot efficiently and economically support the ever-present, always connected, constantly communicating world we envisioned. You know, the one where your dog or cat is found through the Helium Network hundreds of miles from home, or where a scooter company knows that their e-scooters are being left all over the streets instead of at their base stations, or the exact location of that precious package in the last few miles of its journey to your house. A LongFi network or perhaps Amazon Sidewalk has the potential to support that web of low-powered communication. 

I see the Blockchain, cryptocurrency mining side of Helium as an ongoing risk, but am also convinced that Helium Hotspots and LongFi are fundamentally sound ideas.