On our most recent IoT Podcast episode, we took a question from John on our Voicemail hotline. John heard the recent news that Helium has added 5G hotspots alongside its existing LoRa hotspots. This is the result of Nova Labs, the company behind Helium, acquiring FreedomFi. He wants to understand what these new hotspots do because they cost anywhere from 3 to 10 times more than the LoRa ones.
John’s question is rather timely as we started out the podcast discussing Helium’s 5G network buildout. We’re a bit skeptical on the strategy, so going through it may help John and others understand what’s going on.
Helium started out with LoRaWAN hotspots that customers (like me) purchase for around $400 to $500. Think of these as little cellular access points that communicate with other Helium hotspots as well as supported LoRaWAN devices.
Maybe you have a dog collar, a gate sensor or a mailbox with a LoRaWAN chip inside: It can send data to a Helium hotspot several kilometers away, far beyond the range of a WiFi network. A customer owned Helium hotspot receives the signal and uses that customer’s home internet to get the device data on the internet for a very small fee. Essentially, this is distributed network owned by individuals that receive Helium tokens to pass along that data.
The new Helium 5G hotspots replicate this scenario but instead of providing LoRaWAN coverage, they offer 5G service.
While this can be used for device data, it’s really meant to provide 5G coverage on the cheap in areas not serviced by the traditional cellular companies. This means phones, tablets and 5G-equipped laptops can connect to the internet in new places.
Inside the hotspot are 5G radios that use CBRS spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band. The radios, as well as the transmitters and signal amplifiers to support them, cost much more than what’s inside the LoRA-based Helium routers. Since far more data will be used by devices connecting to them, more processing power and advanced software is needed to. That all adds up, which explains why these Helium 5G routers range between $1,500 and $5,000. They’re effectively mini-5G cellular network points.
That said, the idea of earning money as a hotspot owner remains the same. Any data passing through your Helium 5G router will go to the internet over your home broadband connection. And you’ll earn Helium tokens in exchange for passing that data along.
It sounds good in theory. But there are open questions. How is data security addressed? How much of your home internet bandwidth will be used by the hotspot? That’s important for those with a hard monthly data cap from their ISP. And what will the ISPs think of this network usage?
I checked my Verizon FiOS terms of service and technically, it appears that I can’t run a 5G hotspot at my home. The relevant specifics are in this clause: “You may not resell or rent the Service to third parties or allow third parties to use the Service via wired, wireless or other means for any commercial purpose.”
Would Verizon, or your ISP, notice the data traffic coming from your 5G hotspot and across its network? Possibly. Even likely.
So there’s an open question on if this is even allowed and that’s something to consider before investing thousands of dollars to provide 5G service around your neighborhood.
Long story short: Businesses may be more interested in purchasing Helium 5G hotspots because they’ll be paying their ISP far higher rates than consumers do for internet access. Those ISPs may be more accepting of the 5G data going over their network for that reason.
From a consumer point of view? The idea of a distributed 5G network sounds enticing but it’s probably best left to the cellular companies to build out their infrastructure at this point.
To hear John’s question in full, as well as our discussion on the topic, tune in to the IoT Podcast below: