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Leading Solana's DePin Future | Amir Haleem

By Lightspeed

Published on 2024-05-15

Discover how Helium Mobile is disrupting the telecom industry using Solana blockchain and crypto incentives to build decentralized wireless networks.

The notes below are AI generated and may not be 100% accurate. Watch the video to be sure!

The Genesis of Helium

Helium, founded in 2013 by Amir Haleem and Sean Fanning, set out with a bold mission to build open and ubiquitous wireless networks. Initially focused on sensors and the Internet of Things (IoT), Helium's journey into the world of cryptocurrency was not immediate. Amir Haleem, the CEO of Nova Labs, admits to being a late adopter of crypto technology:

"I was very very late to crypto I'll admit. Obviously knew about Bitcoin and had heard about it all the way back from 2009 but I didn't understand it at all. I thought it sounded ridiculous and in hindsight I wish I'd spent more time obviously looking at it."

It wasn't until around 2017 that Helium began to seriously consider cryptocurrency as a means to incentivize and unify the economics of their ambitious global wireless network project. The turning point came with the release of the Filecoin white paper, which demonstrated a novel approach to proof systems:

"The filecoin white paper was probably the first eye opener for me really about how this could work because you know you'd seen other for example file storage networks existed but they still use things like proof of work and never really made any any sense to me."

The Evolution of Helium's Vision

Inspired by Filecoin's innovative approach, Helium developed its own concept called "proof of coverage." This mechanism allowed the network to verify and incentivize the creation of wireless coverage. The company launched its network in 2019, marking the beginning of a new era in decentralized wireless infrastructure.

As the project evolved, Helium's focus expanded beyond IoT to include mobile networks. This shift led to the creation of Helium Mobile, which aims to revolutionize the cellular industry by leveraging blockchain technology and community-driven network building.

The Opportunity in Mobile Networks

The decision to venture into mobile networks was driven by a confluence of factors that created a unique opportunity. Amir Haleem explains:

"A few things had happened all at the same time that we thought made it possible to do things now that couldn't have been done before."

These factors included:

  1. The availability of unlicensed spectrum (CBRS) in the United States
  2. Increasing support for CBRS frequencies in modern smartphones
  3. Open-sourcing of cellular protocol technology by companies like Facebook (Meta)
  4. Exploding mobile data consumption
  5. Slowing capital expenditure on wireless infrastructure by major carriers

This combination of technological advancements and market conditions created a perfect storm for disruption in the mobile industry. Helium saw an opportunity to address the growing demand for mobile data while leveraging a more cost-effective, community-driven approach to network building.

The Helium Network Explained

The Helium network is a community-owned, crypto-powered protocol that provides the economic backbone for building wireless networks. At its core are "hotspots" - small wireless access points that anyone can purchase and set up. These hotspots serve two primary functions:

  1. They provide coverage for Helium Mobile subscribers
  2. They earn tokens for their owners based on the coverage they provide and the data they transmit

This innovative model allows ordinary people to participate in the telecom industry, which has traditionally been heavily gated and controlled by large corporations. Amir Haleem emphasizes the uniqueness of this approach:

"Helium to me is really the first time that a normal person can can say hey I want to I want to operate a cell tower and and get in there and do it and participate in in a very big multi-trillion dollar universe."

Incentivizing Network Growth

One of the key challenges in building a decentralized network is solving the chicken-and-egg problem of needing both coverage and users. Helium addresses this through a clever token incentive structure:

  1. Hotspot owners earn tokens for creating coverage, even if no one is using it yet
  2. They also earn tokens when people actually use their hotspot for data transmission

This dual incentive model helps bootstrap the network by rewarding early adopters while also ensuring long-term sustainability as actual usage grows. The system is designed to gradually shift more rewards towards actual usage over time.

The Challenge of Expectations in Crypto

While the incentive model is promising, Helium faces a common challenge in the crypto space: managing user expectations. Amir Haleem notes the difficulty in balancing realistic returns with the often inflated expectations in the cryptocurrency market:

"People buy like a two or three four hundred dollar hot spot and get mad if it pays for itself in like six months you know by any account that's like an incredible investment um but the expectation in crypto is that you know you're gonna make millions of dollars or hundreds of thousands of dollars or whatever."

This mismatch in expectations creates a communication challenge for the project, as they must navigate regulatory concerns while also trying to maintain enthusiasm in the community.

Building on Solana

In a significant move for the project, Helium transitioned its blockchain infrastructure to the Solana network. This decision was driven by several factors:

  1. The need for faster transaction speeds
  2. Access to a robust DeFi ecosystem
  3. Lower transaction costs
  4. Seamless migration process due to compatible cryptography

Amir Haleem explains the rationale behind choosing Solana:

"We were focused very specifically on like is it fast does it have a good d5 ecosystem is it cheap enough that was really one of the biggest concerns like what like can we actually like transact the amount of transactions that you have on helium and what would the migration process look like."

The move to Solana has provided Helium with enhanced scalability and access to a broader ecosystem of tools and services, which is crucial for the project's long-term growth and adoption.

Helium Mobile: Disrupting the Cellular Industry

Helium Mobile represents the next phase in the project's evolution, aiming to provide a more user-friendly and accessible cellular service. The service offers several unique features:

  1. A $20/month unlimited plan, making it one of the most affordable options in the market
  2. Integration with the Helium network for enhanced coverage
  3. Crypto-based incentives for users who opt to share their data

While Helium Mobile may not aim to completely replace major carriers like Verizon or AT&T, it offers a compelling alternative, especially for crypto enthusiasts and those interested in participating in a decentralized network.

Addressing the SIM Swap Threat

One of the most innovative aspects of Helium Mobile is its approach to combating SIM swap attacks. These attacks have become a significant security concern, especially in the crypto community. Amir Haleem describes the problem:

"What a sim swap is is when an attacker is able to swap your sim card into their phone um without you really knowing it or being able to do anything about it at the time and then once they have that once they've done that they have your phone number and so anything attached to your you know persona that depends on your phone number as identity like a bank account or a two factor authentication over sms or whatever becomes it becomes at risk."

Helium Mobile's solution, dubbed "secure af," leverages blockchain technology to add an additional layer of security:

"If you want to move your your sim card to another device uh you have to sign it with the private key and the same private key that belongs to your helium mobile so wallet which is a salana wallet."

This innovative approach demonstrates a practical application of cryptography beyond just financial transactions, showcasing the potential for blockchain technology to solve real-world security challenges.

User Experience and Adoption Challenges

While Helium Mobile offers significant advantages in terms of security and decentralization, the project faces challenges in user adoption and experience. Amir Haleem acknowledges that the complexities of crypto wallets and key management can be a barrier for many users:

"We didn't want like we have another wallet that when we first launched helium and it's a disaster like trying to get the average consumer to remember 12 or 24 words and like and really trying to get through to them the fact that like we don't know the words either right like if you don't if you don't write down these 24 words like no one no one else can help you."

To address this, Helium Mobile has developed a semi-custodial wallet solution that balances security with ease of use. This approach aims to make the service more accessible to a broader audience while still maintaining the benefits of blockchain technology.

The Future of Decentralized Wireless Networks

As Helium Mobile continues to grow and evolve, it represents a fascinating experiment in the fusion of blockchain technology, community-driven infrastructure, and traditional telecom services. The project's success could pave the way for more decentralized approaches to essential services and infrastructure.

Amir Haleem envisions a future where users have more control over their data and can actively participate in the networks they use:

"I do hope that we see more things like Helium Mobile where it is a genuinely useful and valuable product regardless of the crypto part. And to some degree the crypto part is abstracted away from the typical user."

This vision aligns with broader trends in Web3 and decentralized technologies, suggesting that Helium Mobile could be at the forefront of a new paradigm in how we think about and interact with wireless networks.

Challenges and Opportunities Ahead

While Helium Mobile presents an exciting new model for wireless networks, it faces significant challenges. The established telecom industry has deep pockets and regulatory advantages that make disruption difficult. Additionally, educating users about the benefits of a decentralized network and overcoming skepticism about cryptocurrency will be ongoing challenges.

However, the potential rewards are substantial. If successful, Helium Mobile could demonstrate a new model for infrastructure development that is more resilient, cost-effective, and aligned with user interests. The project's focus on security innovations like SIM swap protection could also set new standards for the industry.

Conclusion: A New Era in Wireless Networks

Helium Mobile represents a bold experiment in applying blockchain technology and crypto-economic incentives to the world of wireless networks. By allowing individuals to participate in building and operating network infrastructure, it challenges traditional models of centralized control in the telecom industry.

The project's transition to the Solana blockchain and its innovative approach to security and user experience demonstrate a thoughtful approach to the challenges of building a decentralized network. While obstacles remain, Helium Mobile's progress suggests that we may be on the cusp of a new era in how wireless networks are built, operated, and used.

As the project continues to evolve, it will be fascinating to see how it navigates the complexities of regulation, user adoption, and technological advancement. Regardless of its ultimate success, Helium Mobile is pushing the boundaries of what's possible at the intersection of blockchain technology and real-world infrastructure, paving the way for future innovations in this space.

Facts + Figures

  • Helium was founded in 2013 by Amir Haleem and Sean Fanning, co-founder of Napster.
  • The company began seriously considering cryptocurrency as a solution around 2017.
  • Helium launched its network in 2019 with the concept of "proof of coverage."
  • Helium Mobile offers an unlimited plan for $20/month, making it one of the most affordable options in the market.
  • The project transitioned its blockchain infrastructure to the Solana network for faster speeds and lower costs.
  • Helium Mobile is closing in on 100,000 subscribers.
  • The CBRS (Citizens Band Radio Service) spectrum became unlicensed in the US, opening new opportunities for wireless networks.
  • Nearly 90% of mobile data consumption happens indoors, influencing Helium's strategy for hotspot placement.
  • Helium's "boosted locations" initiative offers up to 100 times the usual earnings for strategically placed hotspots.
  • The project introduced "secure af," a novel solution to combat SIM swap attacks using blockchain technology.
  • Helium Mobile uses a semi-custodial wallet solution to balance security with ease of use.
  • The Helium network initially ran on 50-60,000 nodes operated by individual hotspot owners.
  • Coinbase has approximately 90 million US-based customers, representing a large potential market for crypto-focused services like Helium Mobile.

Questions Answered

What is Helium?

Helium is a decentralized wireless network project founded in 2013. It initially focused on building infrastructure for IoT devices but has since expanded to include mobile networks. Helium uses blockchain technology and cryptocurrency incentives to encourage individuals to set up and operate wireless hotspots, creating a community-owned network infrastructure.

How does Helium Mobile work?

Helium Mobile is a cellular service that leverages the Helium network of community-operated hotspots. Users can subscribe to Helium Mobile for cellular service, and when they're near a Helium hotspot, their data is routed through that hotspot instead of traditional cellular infrastructure. Hotspot operators earn cryptocurrency tokens for providing this service, creating a decentralized approach to mobile networks.

Why did Helium choose to build on Solana?

Helium chose to build on Solana due to several factors. These include Solana's fast transaction speeds, low costs, robust DeFi ecosystem, and compatibility with Helium's existing cryptographic systems. The move to Solana allowed Helium to scale more effectively and provided access to a broader range of tools and services within the Solana ecosystem.

How is Helium addressing the problem of SIM swap attacks?

Helium Mobile has developed a solution called "secure af" to combat SIM swap attacks. This system requires users to sign any SIM card transfer request with their private key associated with their Helium Mobile wallet on the Solana blockchain. This adds an extra layer of security, making it much more difficult for attackers to perform unauthorized SIM swaps.

What challenges does Helium face in user adoption?

Helium faces several challenges in user adoption, including educating users about the benefits of a decentralized network, managing expectations around cryptocurrency earnings, and simplifying the user experience for those unfamiliar with blockchain technology. The project has implemented a semi-custodial wallet solution to make the service more accessible while still maintaining the benefits of blockchain technology.

How does Helium incentivize network growth?

Helium incentivizes network growth through a dual token reward system. Hotspot operators earn tokens for creating coverage, even if no one is using it yet, which helps bootstrap the network. They also earn tokens when people actually use their hotspot for data transmission, ensuring long-term sustainability as usage grows. This model is designed to gradually shift more rewards towards actual usage over time.

What is the "boosted locations" initiative?

The "boosted locations" initiative is a program where Helium identifies high-value areas for network coverage and offers increased token rewards for hotspots placed in these locations. Rewards can be up to 100 times the usual amount, encouraging strategic placement of hotspots to improve overall network coverage and performance.

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