September 28, 2022

Helium, the popular crypto-powered public wireless network that pays people to host hotspots, has been caught overstating its partnerships in recent days. After Mashable discovered the bike share provider Implicit refusal to participate(Opens in a new window) with Helium and The Verge got Salesforce to say “Helium is not a Salesforce partner(Opens in a new window)“PCMag can now reveal that none of the equipment being sold as ‘Helio 5G’ currently includes any of the common understanding of 5G.

The “Helium 5G” network is a 4G LTE CBRS network, which currently has significant advantages over 5G, but does not have the “5G” name Helium and its partners are looking for in marketing. So he just calls it 5G because, obviously, anyone can use any word to mean anything.

It says it’s 5G, but…

Helium advertises its “5G” network prominently on its website saying “Helium 5G is here—the second major wireless network powered by the Helium blockchain.” Its partners include two carriers, Dish and GigSky, as well as five hardware providers—FreedomFi, Baicells, MosoLabs, CalChip and Bobcat.

The game works like this: You buy a FreedomFi “gateway” box and a small cell. You connect the gateway box to your own wired internet. You then earn a crypto token called “mobile” for providing proof of coverage, along with more crypto for data transfers on your mobile at a later date(Opens in a new window). The “mobile” token is converted into Helium’s HNT token, which is tradable on crypto exchanges. Helium then leases the network to other mobile operators, whose customers can use it to fill gaps in coverage.

Not a bad idea. Stephen Leotis, co-founder of MosoLabs, which builds small cells for the Helium network, says the encryption system allows Helium to incentivize or discourage users where coverage is required or not. If a Helium customer wants coverage in Dubuque, Helium can offer better incentives in Dubuque, while if Pittsburgh is saturated enough, Helium would keep rewards for new Pittsburgh hotspots.

But as a longtime veteran of the 5G signal wars, this analyst can say that one of the few things the industry has agreed on, so far, is that for something to be called “5G,” it must use a radio encoding known as 5G NR somewhere in his system. (Here Qualcomm makes it clear(Opens in a new window).) Carriers play pretty fast and loose, but 5G NR was the red line.

The sun doesn’t even meet this very low bar. All its partners only offer 4G LTE running over the CBRS band, also known as b48. You can indeed run 5G over CBRS, but Helium’s partners don’t yet.

Helium uses the CBRS band because parts of it are unlicensed, so not intended for mobile carriers. While we’ve had commercial 4G CBRS for a year and a half, the technology to do 5G over CBRS is very new: Verizon just started rolling it out last month.

A future Helium partner, MNTD, promises an all-in-one, 5G NR hotspot towards the end of this year, but it’s not on the market yet.

Currently, all radios used on Helium’s network are 4G LTE, not 5G, and no device connected to the network will have a 5G connection.

It’s just a “sexier name”


FreedomFi says its Helium products are 5G. Currently, there is no 5G cell that connects to the FreedomFi gateway. (Credit: FreedomFi)

FreedomFi’s Boris Renski says that using 4G over CBRS has significant advantages for 5G NR, but he’s calling LTE 5G anyway.

“We admit we’re calling this setup Helium 5G vs. LTE because it sounds cooler. If everyone else in the industry can do it, so can we,” FreedomFi says on its FAQ page. But “everyone else” doesn’t do that. Only participants in the helium ecosystem are.

“5G is a sexier name,” says Leotis. “The FreedomFi gateway and core built on the Magma platform is 5G ready, but the radios themselves are LTE today.”


MosoLabs describes a “5G blockchain,” which is a completely meaningless phrase. (Credit: MosoLabs)

FreedomFi’s argument is that you can call something 5G if it has “5G-compatible architecture for the network core” but doesn’t have 5G radios. I have never heard this argument from anyone else in the industry. the general minimum standard for 5G is that somewhere, somewhere, there is a 5G NR radio.

“5G ready” and “5G compatible” are not 5G. If I am ready to rock, I’m ready to rock, but I’m not actually rocking at the time. I’m telling you I could rock in the future, in short order. But at that moment? No rocking. Even AT&T doesn’t go as far as FreedomFi. When it calls its LTE network 5GE, it leans on the “E” to say, it’s not calling it 5G. That’s still shady, but it’s less shady than what FreedomFi is doing here.

Helium overestimates 5G coverage

Helio also means more coverage for its 5G network than exists today.

The Helium exploration(Opens in a new window) says there are currently 2,009 “5G hotspots” in 47 US states. The minimum map resolution is a 1km hexagon on a side, and in a quick test in New York City, I saw no more than 70 meters of range on the Helium LTE hotspots I detected. This means that Helium can fill large areas on its map, but only provide service to small spots.

Right now, GigSky(Opens in a new window) has the only way consumers can use the new network. Those with CBRS-compatible phones (b48) can download the GigSky app and opt for the “Helium Bundle,” which costs $60 for 60 days and includes 5GB of data on major US networks, plus unlimited data on the Helium network . As we’ve covered before, Dish has a deal with Helio, but many of the details are murky.

I signed up for GigSky service on an unlocked Samsung Galaxy S22+ with the NetMonitor Pro application(Opens in a new window) and took it out for a ride in several of Helium’s covered hexagons in New York. GigSky service is on AT&T most of the time, using a single LTE channel of different LTE bands.

Sun coverage 1

The hex here is from the Helium Explorer website, showing theoretical 5G Helium coverage. The green dots are where I actually saw the coverage. (Credit: Helium/Sascha Segan)

Sun coverage 2

The top green dot was just outside The Standard, a major New York hotel with a vibrant outdoor courtyard. (Credit: Helium/Sascha Segan)

For brief moments in my testing, the phone dropped into a strangely signaled, low-key “lte” mode with no frequency band information. I have to assume it’s Sun. Interestingly, the Helium network did not appear to have its own mobile network code or standard cell identifiers. The phone’s field test mode said it was on AT&T the whole time.

Part of the mapping issue may be a difference between how the Helium network is deployed and how most people understand coverage on a publicly available cellular network. According to Helium, 78% of its hotspots are “indoor” hotspots, which may only provide coverage to a single building. In Manhattan’s West Village, I got a brief sunstroke on the patio of The Standard Hotel. Its busy, noisy outdoor bar is a perfect place to add extra cell phone capacity. But just as 4G LTE is good, it’s not 5G, so it’s good to have a network in the Standard Hotel, but it’s not a 1km by 1km hexagon.

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Helium is very early in its release, and is now being advertised as part of its “mobile genesis” period, where it’s just up and running. But like calling 4G “5G” when it’s not, making entire hexes of a map appear covered when they’re actually just small spots doesn’t seem entirely honest.

4G is better (for now!)

4G hotspot

This “5G sunbeam” is a small 4G cell. (Credit: Sascha Segan)

Renski and Leotis say 4G LTE is a better choice for CBRS spectrum right now, but they’ll call it 5G anyway.

Their first argument is that CBRS does not have the channel sizes to make a performance difference between 4G and 5G. This is absolutely not true. With 4G, CBRS channel sizes reach 20 MHz. 5G can use channel sizes up to 100 MHz in this band, so there is actually a potential advantage. Leotis notes that the cloud system negotiated between shared CBRS users is likely to give smaller channel allocations in densely populated areas.

Renski and Leotis also say that 5G CBRS equipment will be more expensive.

“5G radios are incredibly expensive, and you’re going to pay a lot more for 5G for what we see as very little value beyond CBRS,” says Leotis.

MNTD’s hotspot package is expected to cost between $1,500 and $2,000, according to the company’s website, which competes with MosoLabs’ $1,800 LTE + gateway package. Of course, MTDD isn’t selling it yet, so it can claim whatever it wants.

Most importantly, 4G CBRS phones and small cells are widely available, while 5G phones are not. Most US phones released in the last two years have 4G CBRS. But generally only this year’s phones, with a few exceptions, have 5G CBRS. So if Helium wants to start with equipment that its partners can sell and build a network that most people can use, it makes a smart choice with CBRS LTE. He’s just calling it by the wrong name.

What is 5G? Baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more

In a blog post, Helium founder Amir Haleem disclaims all liability(Opens in a new window) for calling his network “5G,” shifting the blame to FreedomFi, where Rensky uses the highly unusual definition of 5G to add another “G” to the small cells of 4G LTE.

The point is, FreedomFi made the right choice. 4G is not going away. More phones support 4G CBRS than 5G CBRS. 4G equipment is likely to be more available and cheaper than 5G equipment for a while.

But “Helium 4G,” unfortunately, lacks the future marketing pizzazz that attracts big-name venture capitalists. When the truth collides with a good story, the good story usually wins, but it’s worth pointing out the truth.

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