Helium Mobile launches indoor hotspot initiative in Miami-Dade area

Nova Labs announced availability of its indoor Helium Mobile Hotspot in the greater Miami-Dade area, kicking off the next phase of a plan to drive mobile coverage by a “people-built” community instead of a network built by big corporations.

Miami-Dade County is where Helium Mobile launched its $5 Unlimited Plan over the summer. Part of the reason it can offer such a low price is due to Helium’s hybrid model, where it uses T-Mobile’s network under an MVNO arrangement and its own network in a growing number of locations.

Now it’s adding the ability for anyone to install a $249 hotspot at their store, café, office or other commercial area and invite Helium Mobile subscribers to use it from their mobile phones automatically. The hotspots are Passpoint-capable, making the Wi-Fi roaming process essentially invisible to the end user.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t about people installing hotspots in their homes, where most people already have Wi-Fi. Boris Renski, general manager of Wireless at Nova Labs, told Fierce the objective here is to get as much coverage as possible in places where Helium users are currently using T-Mobile data in public spaces.

Helium hotspot counter
Helium says the indoor version is ideal for deploying in high-foot-traffic areas such as offices, stores, cafes and other commercial areas.  (Helium Mobile)

Hotels, office lobbies and retail stores are the kinds of places where if they offer Wi-Fi, it’s often restricted usage – like a hotel that requires the user to be a registered guest. A café that already has Wi-Fi may want to install a Helium hotspot because they can get cryptocurrency rewards.

Helium Mobile has been deploying Citizens Broadband Radio System (CBRS) small cells, but those are not exactly cheap and require some skills to set up. This Wi-Fi model is a lot less hands-on and more affordable, Renski said.

“This is literally like a box with a cable,” he said. “You plug the cable into the Ethernet outlet anywhere, and that’s it. Then it’s working.”

After Maimi-Dade, the plan is to expand city by city to other locations, but Miami-Dade is a good place to start because it’s historically been an area where a lot of Helium community members are located, it’s crypto-friendly with a high concentration of people and the topology works in their favor. He said they likely won’t expand before January 2024.

At last check, there were 9,558 Helium Mobile cellular hotspots deployed in the U.S. Separately, the Helium IoT network is deployed in 195 countries with about 998,163 hotspots.

Crypto as incentive

Given the current state of cryptocurrency, one might wonder why entities like Helium are so committed to the crypto model. Renski said the Helium community has proven that using crypto as an incentive is a lot more powerful than just using money. “It allows people to earn the tokens but also own part of the network and participate in the future of the network,” he said.

The community takes pride in doing the work to deploy and operate a hotspot and earn the tokens – which may be worth nothing or may be worth a lot – nobody knows, “but we’re all participating and building this network together,” he said. “It’s kind of like an experiment.”

More players coming online

Since Helium came on the scene, others have followed, including REALLY, which has begun deployment of a decentralized wireless mobile network in Austin, Texas, and recently announced a wholesale deal with T-Mobile. Broadly speaking, Helium is part of the Decentralized Physical Infrastructure Networks (DePIN) movement.

Did they intend to jumpstart a new industry? “I wouldn’t say we specifically intended to do it, but we were always hoping that what we are doing is bigger than just us and because of that, it was pretty clear to us that if it is going to work, there will be other players coming into the space,” Renski said. “We always wanted to create a movement, so to speak, and it was clear that movement would take more than just us in it to succeed, so we’re kind of happy that it’s happened.”

Renski’s background is in open source. He helped co-found Mirantis before founding FreedomFi, which was acquired by Nova Labs.   

He doesn’t believe they will ever be able to rely solely on the Helium network, but it might be possible to only rely on T-Mobile for 10% of the coverage. People tend to use the most data when they’re stationary, and Wi-Fi serves that purpose. It’s those times when someone is moving along a highway, for example, where Wi-Fi can’t provide the connectivity and a wide area mobile network is the only viable option.