How Althea’s removing the friction of internet payments

  • Althea is using blockchain technology to deconstruct how consumers pay for internet
  • Its billing model includes pay-as-you-go and always-on options 
  • CEO Deborah Simpier described Althea as a "Linux" for the internet

No surprise, consumers generally want flexible internet plans. Here’s a company that’s deconstructing the typical billing scheme.

Launched in 2017, Althea is a startup that’s come up with a decentralized internet service that aims to remove the "manual pieces of friction at the last mile” so that rural areas get better access to broadband.

Deborah Simpier, CEO of Hawk Networks (the company behind the Althea platform) described Althea as a “Linux” of the internet.

“Think about what Linux has allowed people to do with computers, right?” She said in an interview with Fierce Network. “Maybe Windows or Apple works for a lot of people, but it doesn’t work for everyone. And a lot of people got sort of left behind.”

How Althea works

The Althea platform is comprised of two core things, Simpier explained. First, it’s a machine-to-machine payment. Basically, Althea’s network of routers “sees where the traffic is flowing and pays a programmatic microtransaction for that piece of infrastructure.”

These transactions occur between connected devices on a public blockchain. For the end user, it’s not unlike using a prepaid service, said Simpier. The router will let consumers know if they need to add more money to keep their connection going, and then they can “swipe their debit card and they put on $25 or $50 or something like that to last them a month.”

“It’s very much that same kind of flexibility of a prepaid phone,” she said.

The other piece of the puzzle is what Simpier referred to as “the price-aware routing protocol.” It’s a router dashboard that allows consumers to customize their internet experience, from the network’s speed and latency to how much they want to pay.

“The routing protocol actually takes your choice of costs or latency in consideration and then routes the traffic through the internet. And then of course, pays those programmatic microtransactions,” she said. “So it’s pay as you go, you have a lot more choices.”

For consumers who can’t afford a monthly internet payment, Althea offers an always-on tier. If they’re unable to refill their router, they can still use email and voice services, the speed will just throttle down to a couple of megabits per second.

Althea’s protocol can be used across “all major standards,” said Simpier. Whether that’s coax, fiber, LTE 5G or fixed wireless. And it can live in “supported home routers or in x86 based hardware.”

Who’s the ISP?

Community-run mesh networks are using the Althea platform and protocol across 13 U.S. states as well as four countries (even in Ghana, for example). Although Althea is a decentralized network model, there are still operators that manage the network in their respective communities.

In North Carolina, for example, Wave 7 runs a network powered by the Althea platform. And that’s the company consumers reach out to if they run into technical difficulties.

“[Wave 7] has worked actually with several different funders to get funding to start their network, and they use the Althea protocol to allow more people to be part of it,” Simpier said.

She explained Althea’s model is kind of like an open access network, “where the infrastructure and the service providers are decoupled.” Though the providers aren’t “in the strict definition” ISPs in the way the FCC defines it.

“From what I understand the FCC [thinks] of an ISP as whomever’s sort of exiting the traffic along and peering that traffic out to the rest of the internet,” said Simpier.

But the consumers still consider the companies that operate those networks their ISPs.

“It’s very similar to the experience of how you would get Comcast or something in your home,” she said.

The consumer would call up the company and request service, and the provider would then “come out, install it for you, make sure it works and the hardware would all be programmed and ready to go for you.”

The big picture

“Access to capital is very hard,” Simpier said, especially concerning the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program. “There’s so much friction in order to get access to building.”

What if “you could own part of the network that’s coming to your door?”

Althea has also come out with a funding and coordination platform called Liquid Infrastructure, which tokenizes fixed and wireless infrastructure. It opens the door for people to crowdfund a network.

“You could take a network that has 10 miles of fiber optic cable and five radio towers and actually bundle them together as an asset and then fractionalize that,” Simpier explained. So you could own 10% of that network or 20%.”

Althea isn’t the only company using blockchain technology to increase internet coverage. On the wireless side there’s Helium Network as well as Pollen.