Sunsetting Helium Console — The End of an Era

As any project pro­gress­es from a good idea to first imple­men­ta­tions and moves clos­er and clos­er to com­mer­cial via­bil­i­ty, the nature of access to the project will change. Typ­i­cal­ly you start off by giv­ing away access for free, just so peo­ple can try the thing out. Heli­um’s LoRaWAN (as all DePIN projects do) went a step fur­ther, and issued tokens for those who were will­ing to put up a gate­way, in Heli­um par­lance called a “Hotspot”.

If you put up (“deployed’) a Hotspot and pro­vid­ed LoRaWAN cov­er­age, you earned a token called HNT. In the ear­ly days of the net­work, earn­ing HNT is what drove the explo­sive growth from zero to about a mil­lion Hotspots in the course of around 2 years, as both the amount of HNT earned and the val­ue of that HNT in dol­lars on the open mar­ket made deploy­ing Hotspots a very lucra­tive endeavor.

If you think of HNT earn­ings as being like a giant pie, where ear­ly adopters got huge slices and many oth­ers looked on those slices and made their own lam­bo plans, you can see where it ends up going. Like any tasty pie, as more and more peo­ple claimed their slice, the slices got thin­ner and thin­ner, and at this point (June 2023) there isn’t a huge finan­cial incen­tive sole­ly for pro­vid­ing coverage. 

So, that leaves the real work of Heli­um still ahead: Allow­ing peo­ple to use this net­work that a com­mu­ni­ty of strangers has built, and as part of that, allow­ing for and encour­ag­ing the sup­port of busi­ness­es that build on top of the Heli­um ecosys­tem. I should say here before going any fur­ther that while I believe build­ing a busi­ness on Heli­um is a rea­son­able bet, if you’re con­sid­er­ing run­ning a busi­ness on Heli­um you should do your own risk analy­sis and research.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about what will need to hap­pen in order for Heli­um as a sys­tem to build a project with long term sus­tain­abil­i­ty. We should start with a brief review of how the Heli­um LoRaWAN works, as it’s slight­ly dif­fer­ent than oth­er LoRaWANs in two impor­tant aspects.

First, the tech­ni­cal aspect of hav­ing an addi­tion­al step in the jour­ney of a pack­et of data as it makes its way from a sen­sor to its final des­ti­na­tion of being use­ful infor­ma­tion. This step, through the “HPR”, or Heli­um Pack­et Router, caus­es addi­tion­al tech­ni­cal hur­dles that are sur­mount­able but must be under­stood by busi­ness­es con­sid­er­ing using Helium.

Sec­ond, the per­son­nel aspect of many peo­ple who would nev­er before have thought about touch­ing a LoRaWAN sud­den­ly gain­ing access to high tech­nol­o­gy as a rev­enue stream. In this case I’m think­ing of those busi­ness­es that might use a ser­vice like Meteo­Sci­en­tif­ic (full dis­clo­sure, MetSci is a Gris­tle King Inc offer­ing) for their own use or to upsell clients on a sub­scrip­tion model.

Here’s a quick visu­al on the flow of data, from left to right, as a “pack­et” of infor­ma­tion leaves a sen­sor and trav­els through to its final destination.

Along every step of the way is an asso­ci­at­ed cost. The sen­sor is a phys­i­cal object that costs mon­ey to buy, a Gate­way costs mon­ey to deploy, the Heli­um Pack­et Router costs mon­ey to oper­ate, as do the LoRaWAN Net­work Serv­er (LNS) and an Inte­gra­tion, which is where you see and use the data from the sensor.

In this arti­cle, we’re going to focus on the LNS options, as this is cur­rent­ly hin­der­ing the growth of a decen­tral­ized system.

Cur­rent­ly, the Heli­um Foun­da­tion, a non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tion with the mis­sion to be a stew­ard of ecosys­tem devel­op­ment, net­work gov­er­nance, and pub­lic edu­ca­tion, runs a free ver­sion of an LNS, called “Heli­um Con­sole”. Any­one can sign up for it and run up to 10 devices on it, pay­ing the “base rate” of data cred­it costs, which is $.00001/DC.

If you want­ed to run your own LNS, you’ll need to buy an OUI (think of it as a license to run an LNS) which cur­rent­ly costs $900, and you’ll need to host your LNS on servers. Yes, you could scrap togeth­er hard­ware and do this on the cheap. How­ev­er, for any seri­ous busi­ness use, servers in the cloud with a rea­son­able uptime guar­an­tee will cost at min­i­mum a few hun­dred dol­lars a month to run. If you were to hire an expert (like I’ve done) to run servers using the OUI you’ve bought, you can expect your costs to start around $1,800/month.

Stay­ing in busi­ness is straight­for­ward; if you can buy the thing for 1 and sell it for 2, you’re in busi­ness. Sim­ple in con­cept, busi­ness is decep­tive­ly tricky in prac­tice as you face not only the chal­lenge of find­ing and keep­ing cus­tomers but also the com­pet­i­tive nature of oth­ers try­ing to run their own busi­ness. If you enjoy that kind of chal­lenge it’s extreme­ly engag­ing, but you do want to make sure as much of the deck as pos­si­ble is stacked in your favor.

That includes mak­ing sure there is no rea­son­able com­pe­ti­tion that can under­cut your prices and sus­tain their operations.

Hav­ing a free option run with­out a prof­it motive sti­fles com­pe­ti­tion. For exam­ple, why would you use the MetSci Con­sole, which charges $.0001/DC, when you could use the HF Con­sole, which charges $.00001/DC?

Of course, there are oth­er sig­nif­i­cant advan­tages to using the MetSci Con­sole. On MetSci there is no prac­ti­cal lim­it on devices, we are con­stant­ly adding new decoders and sup­port, it inte­grates with the MetSci app, and while there’s cur­rent­ly no SLA, we have kept up with a 24 hour response time to all requests.

There is cur­rent­ly no busi­ness sup­port for the HF Con­sole and the Foun­da­tion has said that they will even­tu­al­ly sun­set this Con­sole, although with no date given. 

Still, this is about more than just one LNS, this is about devel­op­ing a decen­tral­ized sys­tem that sup­ports busi­ness­es try­ing to build on it. In a sys­tem where the cen­tral play­er does not have pres­sure to turn a prof­it and offers a free alter­na­tive, the incen­tives to build com­pe­ti­tion are arti­fi­cial­ly suppressed. 

Now, the argu­ment can be made that no one will think of build­ing a busi­ness on a mod­el that only allows 10 devices and has no sup­port, and that’s rea­son­ably fair, but the ques­tion is: Why offer it all? Why not just get out of the way of the busi­ness­es who are try­ing to build on the net­work, let them com­pete on a price/quality basis with­out unfair com­pe­ti­tion, and assume that will build a far health­i­er system?

With that in mind, I’ve pro­posed that the Heli­um Foun­da­tion shut down pub­lic access to their Con­sole instance along with all cur­rent accounts with 10 or less devices in order to open up the play­ing field for a healthy and spir­it­ed com­pe­ti­tion between ven­dors will­ing to invest long term in Helium. 

I could be wrong about this, and I’d love to hear how and why a bet­ter solu­tion exists, so feel free to drop com­ments below, or com­ment on the HIP if it gets accept­ed, or head over to the GK serv­er and join the dis­cus­sion there.


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