Last week, two entrepreneurs in Atlanta launched Barnacle, a package-tracking business built on the Helium Low-Power Wide-Area Network (LPWAN). I was excited to hear this because I’m always on the lookout for use cases for LPWANs and because I host a Helium hotspot and want to provide an essential (or at least useful) service.
The two founders, Connor Lewis, who is the CEO, and Jason Henja, who is the CTO, shared their startup’s plans and gave me a crash course in choosing an LPWAN. I think their experience will help others trying to figure out their own connectivity options.
Lewis and Hejna founded Barnacle last summer with the goal of tracking packages. With the pandemic boosting e-commerce adoption and Lewis having his own experience with a lost package, he felt there was an opportunity to develop a package tracker that could be fairly inexpensive and be reused.
Shippers include the Barnacle tracker inside a package. Once the package is received, the recipient drops the tracker back in the mail. Shippers pay $19.99 for the tracker and get a $10 credit when the tracker is returned. Using an app, both the recipient and the shipper can monitor the status of the package. And thanks to a light sensor on the tracker, they will both know when and where the package gets opened.
The tracker is a postcard-sized device that’s designed to pass easily through the U.S. Postal Service. The electronics are designed to flex through the USPS mail handling machines and are durable enough to continue working afterwards. The device has a light sensor and long-range (LoRa) radio, plus a battery that lasts for about 42 days. For now, the device sends a packet of location data every 30 minutes, but Hejna says they will likely tweak that so the updates are more frequent as packages get closer to delivery.
The two co-founders evaluated several networks for tracking, including Bluetooth Mesh, Apple’s AirTags, and cellular. But they eventually settled on Helium’s LoRa network because it met all of their needs. Lewis said they wanted a network that was reliable, ubiquitous, secure, and affordable.
At first they evaluated NB-IoT, but it was neither affordable nor ubiquitous, and Lewis was leery of dealing with a carrier. He then thought about using Bluetooth Mesh as a potential tracking network, modeling it off of Tile’s efforts. But he worried about getting good coverage since he would have to convince people to install a Barnacle app on their phones to get that coverage.
Then they heard about Apple’s Find My network and applied to participate in that as developers. In Lewis’s opinion, Apple had the ubiquity of millions of phones providing nodes of coverage and good security. But Apple decided not to support enterprise use cases for its network, which left him to turn to Google.
But the discussions with Google hit somewhat of an impasse because both sides worried about the privacy implications. Lewis said neither he nor Google wanted to bake tracking capabilities into the phone OS or specific apps for tracking purposes without users knowing what they were providing.
And then Lewis heard about Helium. Helium is building a LPWAN that incentivizes users to run Helium hotspots on their Wi-Fi networks to provide LoRa coverage. In exchange for building out the Helium network, hotspot owners get Helium Network Tokens (HNTs). These tokens are a form of cryptocurrency that can be exchanged for cash. (Full disclosure: I currently run a Helium router and as such, have a financial stake in the rise of the price of HNTs.)
Lewis said he liked the Helium model and he especially liked the “tailwind behind it as opposed to a headwind like privacy.” As an example of that headwind, he pointed to Amazon’s Sidewalk Network, which might have become another option for Barnacle’s network except that Sidewalk currently has so much negative publicity.
Amazon Sidewalk is a rival LPWAN that Amazon has built by embedding LoRA and Bluetooth Low Energy radios inside its own devices. Now that the network is turned on, Amazon devices piggyback on the consumer Wi-Fi network in homes to send data over the Sidewalk network. Consumers were incensed that Amazon opted them into the network without permission as opposed to asking them to turn on the setting.
Lewis is leery of that negative publicity. But he does recognize the value of a more densely packed network in neighborhoods, and he likes the idea of Sidewalk. But for now, he’s sticking with Helium because it meets his four requirements. He’s paying about 1 to 2 cents per device for 42 days of tracking, which is far less than cellular networks charge for both the data and the modules.
And startups like Barnacle that can build out a connected service with those economics will help jump-start the internet of things. It’s why I’m so keen on seeing networks like Helium, Senet, and Sidewalk succeed.
A version of this story published in Friday’s newsletter spelled Connor Lewis incorrectly. We have updated this story with the correct spelling.