T-Mobile’s crypto MVNO raises the bar for its network builders

Nova Labs, the company formed by the merger of Helium and FreedomFi, is changing the rules for the crypto miners who have deployed more than 6,000 CBRS small cells in exchange for HNT tokens that can be converted to cryptocurrency. Using their own internet connections for backhaul, people all over the country are helping to build an organic 4G/5G network called The Helium Network. If they choose to, these network builders can soon become Helium customers - the company plans to offer data plans for $5/month to anyone with an unlocked smartphone that works on the T-Mobile network. 

Nova Labs recently became a T-Mobile MVNO, and like many other MVNOs, the company wants to limit payments to its carrier partners by handling more of its traffic on network infrastructure it controls. But unlike Comcast, Charter and Cox, Nova Labs does not own CBRS licenses and does not decide where to deploy CBRS small cells. 

Nova Labs relies on General Authorized Access to the midband spectrum, meaning that Helium Network radios can access the airwaves when they are not needed by incumbent government users or license holders. Anyone willing to purchase the equipment and able to set it up can start mining tokens. So Nova Labs has almost no control over where the network radios are placed. 

Nova Labs radio deployments as of 10/31/22

“Some people put 20 cells in their room and point them out the window,” said Boris Renski, who founded FreedomFi to create a “people’s network” and now manages wireless for Nova Labs. He calls the practice of co-locating multiple cells “gaming the system” since tokens are assigned to all small cells that are powered up and transmitting.

“We want to incent people to put cells where the coverage is needed,” explained Renski. So the company is evolving its compensation plan. Soon, simply deploying a small cell and powering it up will not earn miners as many tokens as providing a fast, reliable connection to the internet will. 

Starting this quarter, the system will assign higher levels of rewards to people operating small cells “with acceptable speeds and latency,” according to a blog posted by the company. “Those with less reliable backhaul will receive fewer rewards,” the company said. Renski noted the goal is to give network builders plenty of time to adjust their deployments so that they can continue to earn maximum rewards. 

The next step will be hex maps, which the company plans to make available on a website so that people can see how much coverage they are providing. More coverage will mean more rewards. 

In the near future, Nova Labs wants mobile operators to start offloading traffic onto the network, and it wants them to help shape the reward structure by adding incentives for people to deploy CBRS small cells in places that need better coverage.

Nova Labs is also working to develop hardware and software that will allow people to “map” the network using their smartphones, and report cheaters who are “spoofing the network by broadcasting falsified data.”

Renski thinks the tools Nova Labs is developing could be useful to other companies. “The same approach can be used by cablecos or MNOs to deploy CBRS cells and automate away the complexity of planning,” he said. “We do not have a concrete plan to sell the service but I cannot rule that out.”

RELATED: Comcast hits 5M mobile lines and Charter isn't far behind

For now, Nova Labs likely has its hands full tracking and guiding the network’s development, and fulfilling its new responsibilities as a T-Mobile MVNO. The company now has to comply with FCC rules such as support for E911. 

“As a T-Mobile MVNO we have to comply with all FCC rules that apply across the board,” said Renski. “We plan to complete it before we launch. We cannot operate if we are not compliant.”