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When [Bobcat]?

A few months ago, Ann at Bob­cat reached out to see if I’d like a hotspot for review. She’d read the Rough Guide To Hotspot Opti­miza­tion arti­cle and liked it. She thought it might be use­ful to get a Bob­cat hotspot into my hands ahead of the wave of nor­mal pro­duc­tion. I thought so too. I don’t think she expect­ed me to do any­thing oth­er than plug it in and earn HNT and talk about it, but…that’s not what I did.

If you just want to skip to the “Is the Bob­cat OK?”, go here. You’ll miss out on the most impor­tant part of this post, but I get it; you’re impatient.

Now, I’m not a super tech­ni­cal guy. Sure, I’ve built a DIY hotspot and I can read as well as any­one on the plan­et and fig­ure things out enough to build the first giant badass off grid anten­na that cov­ers an entire coun­ty, but to dive in and dis­sect a hotspot at a mas­ter lev­el? Not my game. So, the day after the Bob­cat arrived at my door, I sent it on to some­one who *could* do that. 

@Jerm on Dis­cord has spent more than a few years as a hard­ware guy, crack­ing open dif­fer­ent pieces of hard­ware and break­ing them down to a lev­el that is frankly incom­pre­hen­si­ble to most of us. He’s a com­pe­tent licensed ham radio oper­a­tor as well, so RF is not new for him. Like me, he’s a mod­er­a­tor on the Heli­um Dis­cord. We con­nect­ed dur­ing the above men­tioned giant badass off grid anten­na instal­la­tion when I need­ed help dial­ing down the trans­mit and receive pow­er of the anten­na I’d placed. As we worked togeth­er and I saw his capa­bil­i­ties, it became clear that he was the per­fect fit for a Bob­cat crack.

I sent the Bob­cat to Jerm. 

My request was that he use his exper­tise to under­stand how it worked, to find any weak­ness­es and strengths, and to share that jour­ney with oth­er mods on Dis­cord so that we would all have “ground truth” when it came to the Bobcat.

He agreed, I sent it up to him and he start­ed to crack it. His goal was to get so far inside the thing that he could map out its brain in 4k def­i­n­i­tion (my words, not his. He’d prob­a­bly be more technical.) 

He streamed parts of his hack­ing on Twitch so the rest of us mods could fol­low along, but most of it was done solo, with the full focus of 20+ years in com­put­er secu­ri­ty aimed square­ly at the Bob­cat heli­um miner. 

I watched the Twitch, and I’d talk with him most days about it, but almost none of it was com­pre­hen­si­ble to me.

While he spent the next few weeks div­ing deep­er and deep­er into the Bob­cat, I spent more time research­ing Bob­cat and Easylinkin. Easylinkin is the man­u­fac­tur­er that helps Bob­cat make the devices. How are they con­nect­ed? What are their goals? Why are they a good option for meet­ing the (cur­rent­ly insa­tiable) demand for Heli­um Hotspots?

This part goes into how the grand Heli­um exper­i­ment is a case study for how the world is changing. 

Let’s start with Easylinkin, the enor­mous Chi­nese man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pa­ny mak­ing the Bob­cats. Here’s how they describe themselves:

Easylinkin is a lead­ing LoRaWAN Gate­way man­u­fac­tur­er and invests heav­i­ly in its own R&D capa­bil­i­ties. In addi­tion to design­ing and man­u­fac­tur­ing LoRaWAN gate­ways and mod­ules, Easylinkin owns more than 200 LPWAN relat­ed patents and has so far raised $85 mil­lion in total fund­ing. Easylinkin’s gate­ways and solu­tions have been deployed across 100+ cities in Chi­na and abroad. It has deployed Lora net­works for Aliba­ba in Hangzhou City, 510,000 LoRa water meters in Chi­na, and 55,000 LoRa elec­tric­i­ty meters for Indone­sia and Mongolia.”

It’s a pret­ty safe bet from that descrip­tion that Easylinkin will be able to pro­duce Bob­cat min­ers at scale. They’ve been work­ing with Semtech, the com­pa­ny hold­ing the patent for the tech­nol­o­gy we’re all using, since 2018. For those of you in the man­u­fac­tur­ing world, Bob­cat uti­lizes the ELi 49,000 sq meter work­shop space includ­ing 11 SMT lines and 73 auto robot testers. What does that mean for the rest of us? Bob­cat ain’t mak­ing these in their garage, this is a full-on com­mer­cial man­u­fac­tur­ing facility.

Ok Nik, so where’s my Bob­cat? If they’re being man­u­fac­tured in this giant facil­i­ty with robots and all sorts of fan­cy equip­ment, where are MINE? And what the heck is going on with their pay­ment process? Mug­gle­pay? Pay­Pal refunds? USDT? C’mon, why isn’t this easy!?”

Great ques­tions, and I had ’em too. So I asked Ann at Bobcat.

Gris­tle King (GK): What are the biggest hur­dles you’re fac­ing right now?
Ann @ Bob­cat (BC): First, 2C (Direct to cus­tomer) mar­ket expe­ri­ence. Like all oth­er IOT man­u­fac­tur­ers, we are ven­tur­ing into a 2C mar­ket for the first time. Tra­di­tion­al­ly, man­u­fac­tur­ers deal with enter­prise lev­el cus­tomers, sys­tem inte­gra­tors, large retail­ers and oth­er 2B cus­tomers. We don’t con­sid­er this a hur­dle but there’s a learn­ing curve involved. 

Sec­ond, the glob­al chip short­age.

GK notes: In case you don’t have time to hit that “glob­al chip short­age” link above, here’s the very short ver­sion: Every­body from Apple to Ford is affect­ed by it. There has been a mas­sive surge in demand in the past year, and indus­try isn’t able to keep up in the short term. Remem­ber how toi­let paper went out of stock at the begin­ning of COVID? This is like that. This isn’t about Heli­um, or Semtech, or Bob­cat. This is a glob­al issue that will take time to solve.

GK: Why is the pay­ment sys­tem so dif­fi­cult to nav­i­gate?
BC: In our April news release we men­tioned the strug­gles we’re fac­ing with Pay­pal. We’re work­ing on mov­ing away from Mug­gle­pay and over to Coin­base Com­merce, though that’s not offi­cial yet. 

Tra­di­tion­al pay­ment aggre­ga­tors [GK note: Pay­Pal and oth­ers] con­sid­er the pre-order sales mod­el adopt­ed by Bob­cat and oth­er ven­dors to be high­ly volatile. Thus, in an attempt to pro­tect them­selves from charge­backs, they will hold onto cus­tomer pay­ments for an extend­ed peri­od even after prod­ucts are shipped.”

GK notes: This is a legit­i­mate issue. When I first start­ed tak­ing pay­ments on Pay­Pal, Pay­Pal would hold the pay­ment for up to 30 days. That chokes off a start­ing busi­ness’ cash flow. If Bob­cat can’t take the mon­ey from sales and pay invoic­es for pro­duc­tion, every­thing slows way down until the pro­duc­tion line can get paid. Mug­gle­pay and pay­ing in USDT are respons­es to a cash­flow chal­lenge, they’re not try­ing to make it dif­fi­cult for you to buy a Bob­cat. Trust me, no busi­ness wants to make it dif­fi­cult to receive pay­ment. This is at the core of what is fas­ci­nat­ing about Heli­um, aligned incen­tives, and just-in-time man­u­fac­tur­ing at scale.

GK: Does Bob­cat have any plans for out­door min­ers?
BC: Right now our focus is on mak­ing the one and only prod­uct we have, the Bob­cat Min­er 300, a sol­id qual­i­ty prod­uct. We do have more prod­ucts on our roadmap but we try not to get too ahead of our­selves and will nev­er over promise any­thing if we are not 100% cer­tain [we can] deliv­er. We want to grow and expand as a com­pa­ny, but we under­stand we need to do it one step at a time.

GK: Where else might we see Bob­cat expand­ing into?
BC: We’re very expe­ri­enced in pro­vid­ing proven, real-life IoT solu­tions that have been deployed on a mass scale (such as meter­ing) and used by real cus­tomers on a dai­ly basis to solve a real prob­lem. Pro­vid­ing sen­sors and IoT solu­tions as well as more hard­ware for the decen­tral­ized net­work is a direc­tion we’re like­ly to explore. Bobcat’s mis­sion is to pro­vide high qual­i­ty hard­ware for decen­tral­ized net­works, and the company’s pres­ence, espe­cial­ly in the US will con­tin­ue to grow in 2021 and beyond.

So that’s the inter­view, or at least the parts that you’ll find use­ful. I spoke more with Ann about the con­nec­tion between Bob­cat and Easylinkin. She made it very clear that they aren’t the same com­pa­ny, and they have dif­fer­ent mis­sions. Bob­cat’s mis­sion is to sell hard­ware for decen­tral­ized net­works. Easylinkin is a more gen­er­al device manufacturer.

With that said, we get to the most inter­est­ing piece of the whole Bob­cat expe­ri­ence (and by exten­sion, every oth­er man­u­fac­tur­er, since all of them I know about are made in China). 

We’ve all heard about glob­al­iza­tion, but this is one of the first times many of us are direct­ly expe­ri­enc­ing it. Bob­cat, and Bob­cat’s con­nec­tion to both Easylinkin and to YOU, a Bob­cat cus­tomer, are an exam­ple of what hap­pens when you get rid of most of the “mid­dle­men” in a man­u­fac­tur­ing process. As a West­ern­er (what an odd con­cept in a round world, right?) your inter­ac­tion will not be as smooth as you’re used to. You are deal­ing with a dif­fer­ent civ­i­liza­tion, and you’re deal­ing with them direct­ly. I think that’s awe­some, but for many of you it’s jarring.

You’re used to Ama­zon deliv­er­ing prod­ucts in 2 days or less with the push of one but­ton. A 12–20 week wait time and a 5 step pay­ment process is freak­ing you out. When your heart starts to pit­ter-pat­ter at this new­ness, remem­ber that an entire busi­ness has been stood up with­in just a few months to meet an insa­tiable glob­al demand for a new, com­pli­cat­ed prod­uct at a scale most of us have no expe­ri­ence with, with mate­ri­als (chips) that are in extreme­ly short sup­ply across many indus­tries. It’s incred­i­ble that it has such a short lead time for all the com­plex­i­ties required. 

The big take­away for me is that get to live in a time where damn near any­thing you want can be cre­at­ed and deliv­ered to your door, no mat­ter how tech­ni­cal­ly com­plex, in under a few months. That has nev­er been pos­si­ble before in the his­to­ry of human­i­ty, and it’s only going to get bet­ter. Bob­cat is a superb exam­ple of pro­gres­sion on that line, and I’m psy­ched they’re involved with Helium.


Is the Bobcat OK?

Yes, it’s fine. Order one here if you’re inter­est­ed. No, that’s not an affil­i­ate link.

From @Jerm’s notes, with some slight mod­i­fi­ca­tions from Nik:

It’s a very light unit (263 grams for the one I received) that you can eas­i­ly mount any­where, and it’ll per­form just like any oth­er hotspot as far as earnings. 

The LoRa radio appears to be based on the SX1301 radio, which takes more ener­gy than the SX1302 and is slight­ly worse at hear­ing pack­ets, but for any giv­en place­ment out­side of some reeeeeeal­l­ly far out off-grid ones that should­n’t be an issue. 

Bob­cat has done a great job with stuff you’ll nev­er real­ize you needed. 

The pow­er sup­ply sec­tion is great. I can see that a lot of care has been tak­en to make sure that con­sumers won’t acci­den­tal­ly fry the hotspot with the wrong pow­er sup­ply.

The eMMC flash chip should prove a lot more durable than the SD-card stor­age used in the orig­i­nal Heli­um hotspots.

Bob­cat ships a batch every Tues­day, and they are deter­mined to only promise what they can deliv­er. As of this writ­ing (ear­ly June 2021), they have met every promised deliv­ery date.

Their anten­na being 4 dBi is fine. It has a mag­net­ic base, which can form a ground plane and improve the radi­a­tion pat­tern. Any of the stock anten­nas from any man­u­fac­tur­er will send a bea­con as far as you need to go in order to earn HNT. See my post on anten­nas for more on that. 

That wraps the Bob­cat. Buy one if you want a Heli­um hotspot, and expect them to deliv­er when they say they will.

In the meantime…rock on! 

19 thoughts on “When [Bobcat]?”

  1. Andrew Gaspar

    Dear Nik,

    First let me thank you for your hard work that you put into this web­site and also for mak­ing the abun­dance of infor­ma­tion avail­able for all of us. I am a soon-to-be hotspot own­er in Europe, and your web­site helped me to gain a lot of knowl­edge while I’ve been wait­ing for my pre-order. 

    I antic­i­pate receiv­ing my first bob­cat hotspots some­time this month and I have a dilem­ma. I plan on plac­ing them safe­ly in the attic and run a 5‑meter coax­i­al exten­sion cable to the anten­na which will be secure­ly attached to the chim­ney. I will be the pio­neer in my city, there are no heli­um hotspots any­where near. The five hotspots will be wit­ness­ing each oth­er about 500 meters to 2 kilo­me­ters apart, with a clear LOS. The only prob­lem I am hav­ing is that I just can­not buy LMR-400 cables that you rec­om­mend. (I can only order it from over­seas, but it will not arrive before the hotspots.) If I go with a read­i­ly avail­able LMR-240 for the 5 meter (15 feet) coax­i­al exten­sion cable instead of the LMR-400, I will have about 2dB of cable assem­bly inser­tion loss per unit. 

    Do you think it will adverse­ly affect the above described set­up? I can­not wrap my head around the con­cept of the dBi, dBm and dB val­ues. I know that 2dB loss will not mean that my 4dBi anten­na will be dumb­ed down to a 2dBi one, but I thought it’s bet­ter to ask you, since you are a heli­um vet­er­an with an immense amount of experience.

    Thank you in advance for your valu­able input!

  2. Hi Andrew, you don’t *have* to have LMR400, you can find an equiv­a­lent. Was McGill not able to sup­ply it? If not, I’ll hunt around for anoth­er Euro sup­pli­er. Get­ting the anten­nas up high is impor­tant. For now you could use the 240, order the 400 or 400 equiv­a­lent, and replace the cables when they come in. The oth­er option is to get some high­er gain anten­nas (up to 6) and not wor­ry about 2 dB of loss.

  3. To fol­low up on that- if you are less wor­ried about gain loss and accept­ed long cable loss, would a high­er gain (6dbi+) anten­na be “more light­bulb” and “less laser” with a long cable?

    For exam­ple, if I was antic­i­pat­ing a long cable run but only require a 4dbi antenna.

  4. Non tech­ni­cal (engi­neers, don’t come after me!) –>The cable length will just sap RF ener­gy, it won’t change the pat­tern that ener­gy is radi­at­ed out as. You want to be push­ing out as much as pos­si­ble from the anten­na, so long cable runs call for high­er gain anten­nas to off­set that loss, but with a cor­re­spond­ing restric­tion of pattern.

  5. Why is bob­cat writ­ing that pay­ment done by cryp­to­coins in this case usdc is not refund­able and no any guar­an­tee is given
    etcetera? They only give you this option (usdc pay­ment) to pay with. Does not give any trust and seems bob­cat does not want to take any lia­bil­i­ty? Seems they have not learned what cus­tomers real­ly wants and need. Ful­ly cus­tomer sat­is­fac­tion since there are EU rules for pro­tec­tion of cus­tomers buy­ing a product.

  6. Hi Raka, you should def. reach out to Bob­cat about that. My guess would be they’re pro­tect­ing their down­side. I know a lot of this seems straight­for­ward and should be sim­pler, but inter­na­tion­al busi­ness direct­ly between a man­u­fac­tur­er and the end-user (you) can be pret­ty darn complicated.

  7. Andrew Gaspar

    Hel­lo Nik,

    Thank you very much for your prompt reply. I did not know about McGill until now, but it appears that they have (almost) every­thing a “new-kid-on-the-block” such as myself would need in order to get start­ed with Heli­um. I have ordered my LMR-400 cables, and hats off to you sir — it seems that you are an expert dom­i­nat­ing inter­na­tion­al arenas… 

    I would hate to over­stay your wel­come, but I’d real­ly like to ask your opin­ion con­cern­ing anoth­er inter­est­ing issue. As I have pre­vi­ous­ly men­tioned, the five hotspots that I am plan­ning to put out are 500 meters to 2 kilo­me­ters apart with a clear line of sight of each oth­er. How­ev­er, the topog­ra­phy around here is some­what chal­leng­ing, due to the fact that ours is a mod­er­ate­ly hill-val­ley town. 

    I plan on imple­ment­ing two hotspots in the low­er (val­ley) region, and the remain­ing three units up on the hill­side. The ele­va­tion dif­fer­ence between the two areas are about 100 meters, and the dis­tance is approx­i­mate­ly 1000 meters. Despite the clear line of sight, the sig­nal from the low­er hotspots would need to trav­el some­what uphill to reach the high­er witnesses. 

    In your opin­ion, can a 4dBi anten­na push a sig­nal ver­ti­cal­ly high enough (~100–150 m) from the val­ley area before expand­ing side­ways to reach the hotspots on the hill?

    Yours tru­ly,
    Andrew

  8. Francisco Canha

    Hi
    I bought my first Bob­cat 300, 05-06-2021, I’m from Por­tu­gal, i like to know when will arrived… My order n°11896xx..
    Thank you

  9. Hi Fran­cis­co, I’m not sure when it’ll ship, you’ll have to check with them.

  10. Hi,
    I want to place my Bob­cat in my loft/attic, would the 4dBi anten­na be able to work well enough inside my loft?

  11. Should be fine, though I’d con­sid­er upgrad­ing to the HNTen­na indoor; that thing is test­ing out REALLY well right now. Not the cheap­est anten­na you’ll find, but one of the very best.

  12. Would you rec­om­mend the RAK BOBCAT EXTERNAL ENCLOSURE to lim­it cable length (under a few ft)? Like I see in your Installs you always try and put the box as close to the router as pos­si­ble, also it’s rel­a­tive­ly easy to run one Eth­er­net cable out­side. This kit Also includes every­thing need­ed for POE. I already have HNTen­nas on order for 868. This box looks sol­id. Do you think their anten­na adapter is going to kill the gain?

  13. Hi Nik,
    Thank you very much for answer­ing my ques­tion, much appreciated.
    That anten­na looks just like what I need, just need to find a UK ver­sion now 868MHz.
    Kind Regards,
    Jay

  14. Sure, you can try it out. I like to build stuff myself, but pre-made options are way eas­i­er. I doubt their anten­na adap­tor will kill gain any more than a nor­mal con­nec­tor; I would­n’t wor­ry about it.

  15. Arunas Pleckaitis

    Hel­lo Nik,
    sim­ple ques­tion — because anten­na cable “eat­ing” sig­nal, so maybe its wis­er to use longer eth­er­net (cat6 or qual­i­ty cat5) cabling ? And if need­ed, put PoE and splitter ?
    My Sen­saCap M1 on the way to me 🙂

  16. Hi,
    I have bro­ken the pig­tail inside my Bob­cat min­er. There seems to be 2 options when buy­ing a new one; M.2 (NGFF) or Mini PCI‑E inter­face? Do you know which one I need?
    Thanks,
    Dan

  17. Hi Dan, thanks for writ­ing in. I’m not sure which will work, def. check in with Bob­cat on this one.

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