A cryptocurrency-powered 5G network running on crowd-sourced mini cell towers running unlicensed spectrum sounds like a confusing collection of buzzwords from the last few years, but it’s real thing. The service, called Helium Mobile, offers unlimited wireless talk, text and data for just $5 a month and is backed by T-Mobile’s nationwide network.
Helium Mobile comes from Nova Labs, a startup that has been experimenting with using different kinds of spectrum to bring a different kind of wireless service. Here’s how it works: Your phone taps into a network of cellular gateways broadcasting unlicensed radio airwaves for some of its service, something the company calls Dynamic Coverage. These cellular gateways act like mini cell towers purchased and installed by individuals in exchange for MOBILE cryptocurrency tokens. When your phone is out of range of one of these gateways, it falls back to T-Mobile’s network.
Nova Labs and its Helium Mobile service are just one of many upstarts trying to make use of unlicensed spectrum to offer an alternative to traditional cellular service. Big carriers like T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon spend billions of dollars on licensed spectrum, which gives them the sole rights to use the airwaves. Helium is hoping to realize the dream of using cheaper unlicensed spectrum to offload cellular capacity, something even the larger carriers have looked at given the increasing cost to build a standard cellular network. And it’s hoping the public will buy into it enough to help make the network run.
“Helium Mobile is redefining the industry with high-quality service at ground-breaking prices, using Dynamic Coverage to connect subscribers to the Helium Network,” Nova Labs CEO Amir Haleem said in a press release.
These small cells aren’t cheap — the indoor model and cheapest version costs $999 (You can check out the full lineup here). A challenge will be getting enough people willing to spend money on these cells to make wider range coverage possible. It’s unclear if offering cryptocurrency — well past the peak of its hype — will be incentive enough. Nova Labs says it has deployments in 1,500 cities across the US.
Nova Labs signed a five-year exclusive deal with T-Mobile to launch the crypto service, which was originally supposed to debut in the first quarter.
The company is choosing to launch in Miami first, which the company said was decided by community members. Anyone in the area can sign up here.
“Miami is the ideal launching point for Helium Mobile because of the existing vibrant Helium Network and as the home of immense crypto development,” said Boris Renski, wireless general manager of Nova Labs.
Subscribers also have a chance to earn cryptocurrency in exchange for providing anonymized network data to the company, which it plans to use to further tweak the service and identify gaps in coverage.
Nova Labs was formed from the merger of FreedomFI, which invested in utilizing unlicensed spectrum in the CBRS (Citizens Broadband Radio Service) band, and Helium Network, which sought to build a decentralized wireless infrastructure. The Helium equipment runs on CBRS and many popular phones, including the latest iPhone and Samsung Galaxy S models, can run on the spectrum.
T-Mobile declined to comment on the launch of the service.