Your mobile phone, your tablet, your laptop, and similar devices all rely on Wi-Fi and cellular for connectivity. But Internet of Things (IoT) devices often need to more easily and cheaply connect over long distances. That means Wi-Fi isn’t an option; nor is cellular, which requires a pricey data plan. Enter a new type of network just for IoT devices: Helium’s LongFi network of hotspots is geared specifically for devices like pet trackers, bike trackers, water quality sensors, and pollution monitors, all of which need a reliable but inexpensive connection over several miles.
But Helium adds a twist over traditional networks. Comprised of individual hotspots that customers purchase and connect to an existing Wi-Fi network, Helium relies on peer-to-peer sharing to create a wide area network. The price tag for each hotspot is $495–steep compared to a traditional router. But in return for joining the network and expanding its coverage, each customer is promised rewards in the form of cryptocurrency.
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Launched live in Austin, Texas, in August, Helium’s LongFi network is now available in more than 425 cities in the US covering 45 of the 50 states, the company announced on Wednesday. In total, the network now encompasses 100,000 square miles just three months after its debut. The fast rollout comes courtesy of local companies and entrepreneurs buying more than 1,000 hotspots over the past few months.
“Helium’s model provides a strong incentive for me to own multiple devices because I can provide coverage to a huge part of the densest areas of Miami and boost the utility of the network,” Scott Kaplan, an entrepreneur who purchased 19 Hotspots to deploy in the Miami area, said in a press release. “The more useful the network, the more devices can use it, which increases the cryptocurrency rewards that I receive as a network owner.”
Through Helium’s open-source Software Development Kit, developers can build devices that connect to the network without needing a cellular plan. A number of hardware developers have already created small, low-power devices that communicate over several miles using the company’s LongFi technology. Prototypes developed for the Helium network include InvisiLeash‘s location tracking dog collar, CleanWater AI‘s remote, low-power pollution monitor, and Bike Route Data Gatherer‘s bike and scooter tracker.
Using cellular for such low-power IoT devices as pet trackers and water quality sensors would be impractical due to power and cost limitations. However, through its peer-to-peer network, Helium can provide the necessary connectivity throughout a city, even reaching into remote areas. Based on initial testing, only about 50 to 100 hotspots are needed to provide complete coverage for an entire city, according to the company.
Due to the interest in Helium, the company also announced an expansion of its Patron program across the country. This program offers discounts, priority shipping, network tools, Helium support, and other benefits to those who buy 15 or more hotspots. Further, Helium is integrating with Google and Microsoft cloud and Blynk’s full-stack IoT development platform to help developers build apps and devices that unite the power of the cloud with the wide coverage of Helium’s network.
Customers looking to buy a hotspot can learn more about it and purchase one online at Helium’s website. Mobile apps for iPhones and Android phones are also available for managing hotspots and viewing Helium’s nationwide coverage.
Helium was co-founded in 2013 by Napster developer Shawn Fanning and Amir Haleem. The company is backed by GV (formerly Google Ventures), Khosla Ventures, FirstMark, Marc Benioff, Shawn Fanning, and other venture capitalists.