Chris Grundemann, a former network engineer and technology consultant, has a Helium hotspot on the roof of his home in El Paso, Texas. It took a day to set it up, but he had waited over nine months for the unit to arrive and was keen to get it in the best possible position to maximize his earnings from mining HNT – the native tokens of the Helium network.
"I spent my Sunday morning drilling holes in my walls and climbing up on my roof," Grundemann tweeted on Jan. 30.
So far, six weeks in, Grundemann has made a total of 6 HNT ($133).
The Helium network is a crypto-powered distributed network of long-range wireless hotspots, and the operators range from digital-asset enthusiasts to more practical-minded internet users who want an alternative to the often pricey service available from entrenched local cable companies and telephone utilities.
The network started off with just 14,000 hotspots at the beginning of last year and now has about 631,000. Helium miners are scattered around the globe, ranging from small islands in the Maldives with populations as small as 3,600 to densely populated areas of the United States.
While Helium describes itself as “the People’s Network” based on the fact it's a decentralized project, the price of a Helium hotspot might pose a barrier to entry for some, given the $400 starting point. In some cases, the earnings can be substantial, but some Helium operators are finding that the revenue barely justifies the outlay or the effort.
Purchasing hotspots can be done through third-party manufacturers like Bobcat Miners, Cal Chip Connect and Nebra, to name a few. These vendors have received approval from the Helium community to sell the hotspots. Some providers have faced criticism recently because of shipping delays.
In a recent initiative by San Jose, Calif., where more than 95,000 people lack internet access, the mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation deployed hotspots to volunteer residents and small businesses across the city for a pilot program. The participants mined HNT, and the token rewards were then used to provide broadband internet access to low-income households.
The amount of HNT miners earn depends on location. The network involves physical real-world network coverage, and because of that, miners need to take location into account when working out potential mining earnings.
For example, major metropolitan areas are heavily saturated and therefore miners’ crypto rewards are smaller.
James Putra, head of product strategy at TradeStation, has a Nebra Helium miner set up in his home in Miami. Putra’s hotspot reaches other miners as far as 22 miles away and has even communicated with another hotspot in the Bimini islands in the Bahamas.
But because of the number of other miners in Putra’s area, his HNT rewards aren't as impressive as if he were located farther away.
In the last 30 days, Putra has gained $43.63 worth of HNT through his Miami-based hotspot.
“I don’t look at it as a business, it's more of a hobby for me,” he said.
Putra says he has since bought five more miners and distributed them to friends and family members.
The trick, according to Putra, is to set up in an area that's less saturated but still within range of other Helium hotspots. “Hotspot users don’t want to be the only one in the middle of nowhere as there will be no connectivity,” Putra said.
Manuel Pereira, a student based in Lisbon, Portugal, says his hotspot managed to reach 107 miles away. He used a Bobcat Miner 300, a high-efficiency unit that costs around $600.
Pereira told CoinDesk in an interview that he also has a long-range antenna with a 6.5 dBi (dBi is used to measure antenna performance), which contributed to the long reach. He said that the weather conditions that week also helped the signal spread to a longer range. Pereira plans to increase the height of his hotspot in order for his miner to reach even farther out.
How much miners earn is visible to the public on the Helium explorer page.
For context, a hotspot named “Zealous Yellow Dragonfly,” located just above Chicago, earned $404 in HNT over the last 30 days as seen in the image below.
There are some exceptions to hotspots in heavily saturated areas, Frank Mong, Helium’s chief operating officer, said in an interview with CoinDesk.
“Even in heavily saturated areas, earning potential could be totally different if the location of the hotspot is at the top of a high-rise condo, for example,” Mong said.
The engineering considerations are similar to the way some radio signals can travel only a couple of blocks in places like New York, according to Mong. Large buildings get in the way.
Raina Saboo, a Google employee from California, waited over seven months for her hotspot to arrive. Saboo said she ordered the hotspot to generate a passive income but has been disappointed with her earnings; she figures that there are too many other miners close by and that she doesn't have the best installation setup.
Since September, Saboo has earned 10 HNT ($210). “Although the rewards are low, it’s still worth it for me because it requires zero effort on my part,” she said.
“Because of this, I have bought additional HNT tokens on exchanges as I am bullish on the project,” Saboo said.
HNT tokens were trading at around $22 as of press time, up 400% in one year.
A network for everyone?
One obstacle to further growth might be the daunting cost of a new unit.
In order to tackle the barrier to entry, Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi founded a startup called FairSpot that allows miners in the U.S. to finance their initial capital outlays – similar to a rent-to-own model.
Miners keep 70% of their earnings and FairSpot takes the remaining 30%. After 500 days of mining, the hotspot's ownership transfers from FairSpot to the user.
Applicants are accepted based on their location and to some degree their financial situation.
“We try to emphasize giving to those that are less advantaged when selecting,” Arjomandi said in an interview with CoinDesk.
Arjomandi said that the main focus of the business is inclusion, claiming a “racially diverse” user base that's at least 20% female.
“I think Web 3 is an incredible opportunity for many people, but if its main beneficiaries look the same as those who rode the previous waves of wealth creation, I don’t think the world will be a very good place,” Arjomandi said.
On Tuesday, Helium announced a partnership with Techtenna, a high-density LoRaWAN network operator, simplifying end-to-end internet-of-things products for a variety of use cases.
According to the press release, Techtenna plans to deploy more than 2 million devices by 2023 across a wide range of fields such as smart water metering, smart cities, forest conservation and smart agriculture.
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