Decrypt’s Art, Fashion, and Entertainment Hub.
Crypto wireless network Helium was once the poster child for tangible crypto utility—but growing skepticism of the model, plus major brands distancing themselves from the project, has cast doubt on whether the distributed network is actually serving much purpose.
Nova Labs, which created and now supports the decentralized Helium network, now has a plan to bring more high-profile brands and large companies into the fray. The company calls it "1663"—a new integration arm to help large-scale enterprises develop and deploy projects and products built around Helium’s original internet of things (IoT) network.
Amir Haleem, Nova Labs CEO and Helium co-founder, described 1663 as a necessary next step for the backers of an open-source network that has grown in scale over the last two years, but still presents challenges for adoption by established companies that may doubt its effectiveness or its token-based model.
“Now that Helium has gotten to that maturity point where it is extremely stable and reliable,” he told Decrypt, “I think what's needed now is an entity to exist to help shepherd those high-value applications from concept to reality.”
1663 is designed to handle complete project solutions for companies that can use Helium’s low-power, wide area network for sensors and trackers from IoT devices. Nova’s team will source the needed hardware, build software and integrations, and deliver ongoing support after launch. Haleem said the division is targeting more “high value” and “brand name” firms.
Helium and its founders have faced increasing scrutiny as the network gained prominence.
Last August, the Helium website removed the logos of scooter rideshare startup Lime and cloud software giant Salesforce after both denied being linked to the network. Nova said at the time that many companies have tested Helium integration at some stage, but promised a “much more rigorous” process for vetting claimed partners for marketing materials.
The network has also taken flak for what appears to be low usage, generating less than $2,000 per month worth of data credits for network usage fees from August through October last year, per data from the Helium Foundation. Haleem wrote in August 2022 that Helium generates revenue through other means, as well, and claimed some $54 million worth in total as of then.
Meanwhile, miners—who purchased hardware nodes to share their internet access and expand the network—have seen shrinking crypto token rewards as Helium scaled. Nearly one million IoT hotspots have been activated on Helium, but at a much slower rate in recent months.
“Some of the criticism is completely valid and fair,” Haleem said of critiques around Helium’s growth and economics. “And a lot of it is a lack of patience, or malicious intent to some degree.”
Haleem claims that it could be many more years before Helium has enough adoption to support its token-driven infrastructure at a mass scale. That doesn’t gel with many crypto traders’ desire for rapid gains and rewards. 1663 wasn’t created specifically as a response to such complaints, he said, but if successful it could help Helium gain greater traction among traditional Web2 companies.
Even with relatively low network revenue generated by data credits—up to nearly $15,000 in January, per the Helium Foundation—and what he acknowledged is an “open” question about network economics, he said the most important stat in his view is how much data is being transmitted on the network.
Helium handled nearly 1.5 billion packets (or messages) of data in January, the Foundation said, up more than 10 times from about 121 million messages in September 2022. In a statement shared with Decrypt, Helium Foundation CEO Abhay Kumar said that it’s not possible to determine the exact sources of traffic on a permissionless network.
5G and beyond
Helium's 5G network for smartphones and other devices is today growing more gradually than the IoT network did at its peak, with about 8,300 hotspots deployed over the past several months—but Nova Labs says it's key to its future plans.
The network will provide the backbone for Nova’s upcoming Helium Mobile wireless service, which pairs Helium’s user-supported network with nationwide 5G coverage from major carrier T-Mobile—and lets users earn crypto tokens by using the service.
In response to reports that Helium 5G-compatible hotspots aren’t actually serving up true 5G service, Haleem acknowledged that the branding was “part of a future-looking strategy,” and that the network can support 5G devices. He pointed to at least one upcoming hotspot with a 5G NR radio onboard, but also defended the branding as business as usual for a wireless industry that has used misleading labels in the past.
“It's a little bit of a mess, and that's just kind of the way this industry is,” he said of cellular standard branding. “Helium is in there representing the 5G network, I think, consistently with the way others are.”
Helium is also in the process of migrating from its own blockchain to Solana following last fall’s community vote, and Helium Mobile will integrate with the Solana Saga smartphone. It’s sure to be a busy year for Nova as it attempts to overcome growing criticism and showcase the potential of Helium’s expanding “network of networks.”
“Our mission has always been to make it easy for people to take advantage of decentralized networks,” Haleem said. “The work that Nova does is breaking down some of those barriers so that you're taking advantage of a decentralized network without even really knowing or caring about it.”