Decentralized wireless networks (DeWi) are a new way to stay connected to a strong and consistent network. Traditional wireless networks, while well-integrated, possess strengths and weaknesses. Cell communications networks in the United States, like Verizon and AT&T, have thousands of cell towers and rooftop antennas that propagate their network. They have hired a company to construct and maintain their forests of cell towers in order to maintain coverage over the whole continent. In these instances, the company owns all of its cell towers. Thus, it is a centralized wireless network.
This article will cover the benefits and drawbacks of a DeWi network as well as the two major players on the DeWi scene — Pollen and Helium. Read on for more information!
Perhaps the best way to explain a decentralized wireless network is to start with a traditional communications network, like the above example with Verizon. A decentralized wireless network is the opposite. DeWi networks function by selling their network antennas to customers (an example of that later) in order to create a network where the consumers act as the nodes, much like cell towers and rooftop antennas are the nodes of the current 4G LTE technology. The pros and cons of a DeWi network are, perhaps, evident from the beginning. You may ask: what would make someone buy into that system when there is no network to start with?
All DeWi networks must work to incentivize their users to purchase their nodes. Cellular antennas are expensive products that oftentimes require work to install and upkeep. To create a DeWi network the company needs to incentivize its customers to purchase their equipment with the promise of a return on their investment. A user who purchases an antenna from the company has purchased, for lack of a better term, a stake in the company. This means that they are now invested in the growth of the network, as their stake in the company becomes more valuable as the network grows and prospers.
Companies building a DeWi network want their customers to purchase their services as well as add to the network with a beacon of their own. Pollen, for instance, sells a big two-piece outdoor antenna as well as a small window-mounted box that both create a node on the wireless network. They want to expand their network to cover as much of an area as possible. That being said, keeping a rein on a wireless network that is in the hands of millions of consumers is a tall order. To combat that added complexity, these companies have created a device that checks for the network and sends it back to the HQ, allowing them to keep a relatively up-to-date coverage map.
This plan is called the proof-of-coverage, and it is used by both Helium and Pollen. This system verifies the strength of its network in a certain location, ensuring that it is being emitted properly by the hotspots that are supposed to be providing coverage in that area. This is done by apps and devices that their users can buy and bring along with them as they travel. These proof-of-coverage devices provide real-time feedback on the strength of the network in all the locations they travel, informing the headquarters of possible problems and the current layout of their network.
Because it is a decentralized network, these companies have no power over whether or not their customers are going to continue using their hardware. With the incentives they have in place, it makes sense, but there is no guarantee, and to counteract that risk they run these devices around, rewarding customers who travel long distances because they are checking more areas.
One of the major benefits of this service is that the data is sold at a much lower price point than traditional wireless companies. Even if a customer is not contributing with a hotspot or proof-of-coverage, the cost per gigabyte of data used is a fraction of what it goes for at a major wireless company or even an MVNO. This allows their customers to enjoy high-speed data at a reduced cost. For many customers, it is important to check coverage in your area before you switch. This is all on data, so your phone and other devices will function normally on Wi-Fi. If you are someone who spends most of their time in Wi-Fi then switching to a DeWi network only makes sense if it has powerful coverage in the areas you frequent.
Both Helium and Pollen employ token economics to incentivize their users to purchase their miners. These devices, put simply, bring in money for their users while also providing a node for the network to grow. These devices bring in cryptocurrency for the user while creating a DeWi network. If you were wondering what a DeWi network is, right now it is mainly a cryptocurrency-mining device that is projecting a radio signal around the surrounding area. Pretty cool, right?
Miners of DeWi networks are able to gain their coins through two main methods. They can use their miner to create a node on the network and are therefore rewarded when people use it, and they can also travel with a proof-of-coverage device and send data to the DeWi network’s headquarters. This coin collection is the incentive to bring them in at the company and grow their decentralized networks.
This section will talk about the two major DeWi networks out there right now — Pollen and Helium. These networks are big news in the field since they are both stepping into uncharted waters. This is big news for DeWi networks! As of right now, there are no DeWi networks that are occupying the mind of the public, but that could change at any time. Before we get into the meat of it, let’s refresh ourselves on the differences between DeWi networks and traditional communications.
Traditional communications networks are built upon a huge network of access points that allows information to fly through the air on radio waves, traveling from destination to destination almost instantaneously. Wireless companies like AT&T and T-Mobile have thousands of cell towers and antennae that dot the landscape, allowing them to cover the map with a strong 4G LTE connection. These companies are taking a foray into 5G, but are running into problems with the way that 5G’s signal is less robust and more likely to suffer issues when going over long distances. The current infrastructure is optimized for 4G LTE coverage and it will take a very long time before 5G is a viable switch for these big companies.
Enter DeWi networks. They are a bold and completely different business model that puts the network on the shoulder of its operators. One immediate benefit from a network like this is that the cost of data is usually much cheaper, but they are not without their host of problems. Helium and Pollen are two major DeWi networks that are trying out their own strategies.
Pollen is a company that sells its network antenna, flowers, to its customers. These network antennas (their miners) generate coins while providing network coverage. Both Pollen and Helium are based on crypto, so the purchase and use of their data are done with cryptocurrency. Pollen operates with one currency called PCNs (PollenCoins) and network operators receive these coins when their network is used by other people.
Just like with any DeWi network, Pollen wants to incentivize customers to purchase Flowers and expand their network. Building these networks is a herculean task because they are starting from scratch. MVNOs, a model for wireless coverage, are piggybacking off of existing wireless networks, allowing them to jump straight into the game. DeWi networks have to construct themselves from the ground up, starting with no network at all.
Building a network from the ground up is not, of course, without its benefits. If a few people in a rural town decide to get their Pollen Flowers then the town, in an instant, is covered with a fast 5G network. Pollen incentivizes people to purchase their equipment through their cryptocurrency. In theory, someone who purchases a flower can enjoy their service for free and even make some money as others use their network.
There is a third step in this process, the good proof-of-concept that we discussed earlier. Their devices, called Bumblebees, collect data on network location and strength and send it to Pollen HQ. Users are also incentivized to purchase these devices because they are rewarded with PCN for the data they transmit. The best place to keep a Bumblebee is in your car or bike, as the further it travels the more data it can collect. Before we get any further, here’s a list of all the devices currently offered by Pollen (and their cute names!)
Pollen’s network functions with three major points. It starts with the flowers that create the network. The network is validated by the bees which move around, collecting data. Finally, it is used by the hummingbird SIM cards that allow users to connect to the network! The frequency used by Pollen is CBRS, which was recently released to public and private corporations.
PollenCoins are $.10 a coin. As the network develops that is destined to change, but for now, $.10 is the cost set by Pollen when they rolled out the network. Every user has the ability to earn PollenCoins over the course of the day. Put simply, they are earned when users validate the network or when users connect to a flower. The exact and detailed description of their network is found on Pollen’s mobile whitepaper. Now, this network is not designed for the users to get rich off of their PollenCoins, but users who contribute to the network are expected to get out what they put in over the course of a few years. This is, of course, all subject to change as the company grows.
To begin, one major difference with Helium is that it began with a focus on the “internet of things,” which refers to the network of objects that have become connected to the internet. This is not in reference to, say, your phone or tablet, but rather the ordinary household objects like refrigerators, appliances, thermostats, doorbells, etc. Helium started as a network with a ton of notes in the IoT network, but the network was very very expensive to maintain. From their humble beginnings, Helium was ever the pioneer in DeWi network technology, although they have come under serious flack about their business practices. According to that Forbes article, Helium has repeatedly shortchanged all of the users who have purchased their hotspots over the years.
The pitch was good. They boasted that a Helium hotspot would generate passive income and all you had to do was plug it into the wall. Unfortunately, for many of their users that passive income trickled down to an inconsequential amount because the mined coins were being allocated to the company's founders.
Helium came before Pollen and was the first company to create and maintain a crypto-based DeWi network. They are now a company with a significant commitment to the IoT as well as a burgeoning 5G network that is maintained the same way as Pollen’s network. Helium’s internal structure is very complicated. When it comes to Helium versus Pollen, Pollen has a clear advantage in its simplicity. Helium, for example, uses a pair of cryptocurrencies to run its central structure.
Helium uses two tokens. They use HNT tokens and MOBILE tokens, which both, for simplicities sake, give users one big benefit over Pollen’s users. It gives them a stake in the company if they are able to mine any significant amount. A small one, but a stake nonetheless. Pollen’s users are only able to use their tokens to purchase data and continue their use of the network. With Helium, users are able to redeem it for more facets of the company. There are, unfortunately, few connections between their IoT network and their 5G network at this time, meaning that customers who are heavily invested in their IoT are not incentivized to get into their DeWi 5G network, and vice versa.
Both projects have their positives and negatives, with each one trying to bring in as many active participants as they can in order to organically grow their networks and businesses. One area where Pollen is a clear winner is in its simplicity. Explaining Helium’s network and how they have allocated their cryptocurrency is seriously more challenging than explaining Pollen’s network. If you are interested in the ins and outs of Helium’s network, you can check out their website!
Whew, DeWi, huh? Decentralized wireless networks have the potential to become a very big part of people’s daily lives, but they have a long way to go. People look at networks like these and think of them as multi-decade projects. There is simply so much infrastructure to create that something like this cannot happen quickly. It is up to the users to figure out if a switch from a traditional wireless company is worth the risk of joining a DeWi network!