During this transition to Light Hotspots, which has been predictably uncertain, it hit me that many, if not most of the people who have been buying Helium Hotspots and deploying them don’t have a strong understanding of the system.
It’s as if you’re on the moon and you’re constantly wondering why there’s no air, or why it gets so hot or cold, or why you bounce 20 feet when you walk. I’m not talking about how you earn HNT; any fool can do that. I’m not talking about the interactions between Hotspots, or how your rewards are affected by how densely packed local Hotposts are. I’m not even talking about the problem (and yes, there’s definitely a problem) of gaming syndicates earning HNT for providing no real-world value.
I’m talking about the implications of what it means to participate in a decentralized system. On the surface level, decentralization is an easy concept. There is no centralized point of power, there is no one group that can manipulate the system. Any person or entity can come in to contribute and receive a fair share of the value they provide. That’s the dream. So far, it’s still a fantasy.
It’s a fantasy in Helium for two main reasons. First and obviously, there is a fair amount of centralization in the system.
Centralization: The Current Reality
There had to be centralization in order to bring the thing into existence. Helium is still a young enterprise, and a central entity is the most efficient form of management to get the system strong enough to stand on its own.
Now, that doesn’t mean it’s completely centralized, or that the powers that brought it into existence aren’t working very hard to make it decentralized.
We’ve got four main “players” in the space. Two of them are centralized and essential power players, and two of them are decentralized, though still essential.
First, the Nova team. Nova, formerly Helium Inc, is the group who created the idea of Helium. They wrote the code, did the marketing, manufactured (or more correctly, caused the manufacture of) the first few thousand Hotspots, and built out the initial platforms (first Slack and now a Discord server) for a growing community of Helium Hotspot deployers to build the wireless network. While they remain core contributors, they are trying to decentralize the system as rapidly as they can.
Second is the Helium Foundation. The Helium Foundation has three main roles: First, to be a steward of the intellectual property and brand assets of Helium. Second, to maintain the core technology and its repositories, including the Helium blockchain, miner, and Hotspot app source code. Third, to responsibly distribute and manage signing authority for changes to the system.
Nova & the Helium Foundation are the centralized power players. They maintain and control the system for now, guided by the community but with the ultimate authority to execute decisions.
The third player is you, the Hotspot deployer. Whether you’ve got one, ten, or ten thousand Hotspots, you are part of a core element of this system, and the most decentralized part of it. Individually, you have as much power as you care to be responsible for. Most of us, frankly, don’t care to be responsible at all. More on that in a minute.
Finally, we have the users of the Helium Network. Users can range from one-sensor deployments by a Hotspot owner to monitor soil temperature in their garden out to 100,000 sensor deployments by large commercial entities. The larger those entities are, the more power they have to make changes to the system. Still, they don’t have the same signing & executory authority of Nova and the Helium Foundation.
Those four players represent the current state of the network; not yet fully decentralized, though definitely moving in that direction. Before we get to the implications of a decentralized network (which every Hotspot owner should know), let’s talk about one more thing. This “thing” that is either unknown, or misunderstood, or just so new to most people, is at the crux of discontent within the Helium ecosystem. The “thing”, of course, is decentralization.
The responsibility to change, improve, strengthen, or destroy the Network is rapidly becoming more decentralized. No one entity totally owns it. All entities, including you, are responsible for all of those things.
The health of the Network is on you.
We don’t, as Hotspot owners, tend to believe that. As (mostly) regular people, we’re used to interacting with entities that are responsible for a network we are visitors in. Examples of this come in two general flavors: First, governments that set and enforce rules, maintaining order and infrastructure like the tax code, or our roads, or street lights, or airports. Second is businesses, like Amazon, or Apple, or even the local pizza shop.
In either of those networks, government or corporate, you have been participating in a heavily centralized network. While centralization gets a bad rap, for most of us it’s A) the only way we’ve known of interacting with large entities, and B) it allows us to hold someone or something responsible. In general, centralization is a good thing. Centralized networks provide clear avenues for both improvement or complaints. If there’s a pothole in the road in front of your house, you can complain to the city government. If you want a different leader (and there are laws supporting a voting system) you vote the old bastards out and bring in new ones.
On the commercial side, if you buy something on Amazon and you don’t like it, or it doesn’t work, or it isn’t as described, you know exactly who to contact in order to remedy the situation. Amazon has taken on as much responsibility for their products as they can. You love that part, even if you hate Amazon. Even with companies we don’t love to hate, we’re used to them taking responsibility for their products. If you don’t like your pizza, or you want a new flavor, you talk to the pizza shop owner.
Now, I can hear you saying it: “Nik, I know all this, why are you making such a big deal of it?”
I’m making a big deal about what you’re used to (centralization) vs the system you’re entering (a decentralized one) because living in a decentralized world is no less different from what you’re used to than living on the moon.
It’s not as if you’re moving to a new country with new and slightly different laws.
You are no longer on the same planet.
The fundamental conditions you’re used to do not exist here. It’s as if you thought you were moving to a strange and exciting new city and ended up on the moon.
The laws are are written in a language that most of us don’t understand. A set of rules we all agree to live by are barely built, and certainly not mature enough to protect against bad actors. The very atmosphere we breathe is different. The absolute crux of this is responsibility.
The fundamental responsibility of maintaining a healthy decentralized network lays with anyone who wants to take it on.
Now, you’re used to “someone else” taking on that responsibility. You’re used to, for example, a system with police in it. Those police have a recruiting and training system, a management scheme, and clear rules to maintain and enforce. They act in accordance with what their constituents want.
There is no “Helium Police Force”.
The only thing that exists to protect a network of almost a million Hotspots is a few people, mostly volunteers, who feel they can help improve the system.
For most of you, that’s when you start howling: BuT wHy dOesN’T soMeOnE PrOteCt mE?
This is the world of decentralization, dawg. A decentralized system has no obligation to protect you. While you can freely participate in the system (nothing stops you from buying a Hotspot, adding it to the Network, and receiving Network tokens), the responsibility for understanding the risks, hazards, and opportunities in that Network are yours. Your success is on you and a bunch of competent strangers.
Now, most of us just look for the opportunities, and really, focus on just one question: How much HNT can I make?
Hey, I get it. While it’s not what got me into Helium, the earning potential of it was so staggering that you’d have to be a fool to pretend it doesn’t exist. You’d have to be a greater fool to ignore the opportunities that exist in taking on some of those responsibilities. From anti-gaming to a Helium escrow business to Hotspot management to deploying sensor networks , the opportunities to build, profit, and generally succeed within this ecosystem are staggering.
Those opportunities are what I encourage you to explore at this point. Sure, the Network as of May 26th 2022 is a shitshow. That’s fine. I expected it, as did anyone who realized the enormity of the task Nova & the HF took on when they initiated the transition to Light Hotspots. It’s equivalent to moving from clunky old vacuum tube computers to a modern laptop, and they’re going to do it in about 2 months. That’s remarkable.
For now, let that problem belong to the centralized powers. Lean into the benefits of centralization while it lasts, and let them get this thing healthy enough to let it fly out of the nest. While the Helium Foundation & Nova Inc are doing that, the rest of us (well, those of us who want to win) will be focusing on deeply understanding and contributing to a decentralized network. That is the great gift they are going to give us. Will you be ready to receive it?
Remember, with great decentralization comes great opportunity. The real question is: How big of an opportunity do you want?