RAKwireless, which makes IoT gateways and hotspots for Helium’s IoT network under the CalChip brand, is launching a new Helium hotspot and miner designed for the mainstream consumer. The device is called MNTD, and it will cost $400. The big bonus for Helium fans is that the miner/hotspot will ship two weeks after it is ordered, with customers only allowed to order when inventory is available. This is the second consumer-oriented miner for the Helium network after last week’s launch of a window-mounted mining device called Finestra, and a mark of the growth of the Helium LoRaWAN network and business model.
Helium is building out a peer-to-peer distributed low-power wide-area network for the IoT by using a cryptocurrency to reward people for hosting hotspots on their Wi-Fi networks. Each miner sits on a Wi-Fi network creating part of a LoRa mesh network (using the consumer’s Wi-Fi for backhaul to the internet). LoRa provides long-distance coverage of up to a few miles for very small bits of data. In exchange for the use of the home Wi-Fi, Helium miners mint Helium Network Tokens (HNTs). These HNTs are used by companies that want to use the Helium LoRa network to buy data credits for their devices. Thus, the price of HNT’s should reflect demand for the network.
Here’s where I should tell you that I own and Helium hotspot and have unwittingly mined thousands worth of HNTs. This is not an encouragement to purchase the devices. In the last few months, the number of HNTs mined by my hotspot (which is one of the original Helium branded hotspots manufactured by RAK) has gone from mining several HNTs a week to mining one or even less. This is a function of changes to the network and a nearby neighbor setting up their own hotspot.
I don’t mind, as I plugged the device in because I want to see a low-cost LPWAN available for IoT devices such as trackers, open close sensors, weather stations, and more. But casual consumers hearing tales of Helium riches should check out the coverage maps and expect much less if they buy the MNTD device today.
The new devices are RAK’s answer to the high demand for Helium miners as the price of the Helium Network Tokens rise and chip shortages make it impossible get fulfill orders in a timely manner. For example, my colleague Kevin ordered Helium miner back in March, which he is still waiting for. Jose Marcelino, a solutions architect with RAK, says that the company has doubled the number of miners it has made, but demand from companies that buy miners in bulk means consumers are stuck waiting for a long time.
The component storage has also caused problems. Helium routers use Raspberry Pis as the computer inside, and Marcelino says that it can be hard to get those boards quickly, so plans to allow more computers to run the HNT algorithms would help speed up the ability to provide miners. Other component shortages or price hikes, such as the rise in copper prices, have caused problems in making antennas. So while MNTD devices will have the same constraints in manufacturing as other Helium hotspots, the company will only allow people to buy five miners at a time and will offer live tracking, so people know when they buy the miner they will get it within two weeks.
The goal with MNTD is to spread the Helium network out across many homes and many people, making it more resilient and providing better coverage. As a big believer in LoRa networks, I’m all in favor of this goal.