The Helium Network attempts to build a decentralized network of IoT hotspots with privacy and security at the forefront of its vision. The recently released Amazon Sidewalk network aims for a similar goal with a much different view on privacy. This competition runs parallel to a fable we all know: who is the hare and who is the tortoise? Could Amazon be the hare that quickly set up its network, and Helium be the consistently growing tortoise poised to surpass Amazon’s network? The answer could lie in the difference between centralized and decentralized services.
Internet infrastructure depends on a small group of large ‘hotspots’ or ‘gateways,’ but modern technology allows this system to work on a large group of small gateways. The barrier of entry to internet infrastructure is establishing gateways at scale comparable existing industry leaders. CEO of Helium, Amir Haleem, believed that with proper financial incentives, people will voluntarily join the Helium Network as decentralized competitor to IoT leaders. As such, the Helium token serves as Helium’s financial inventive to lure early adopters and inspire a network effect once the potential of the network is realized. In 2013, Helium had its Initial Coin Offering and later launched what is now dubbed ‘The Peoples Network.’ A pinnacle shift in networking infrastructure was underway, and unsurprisingly, it caught the attention of many talents in the tech community.
Helium’s opportunities are growing, and where there is opportunity, there is a big tech company ready to either acquire or set fire. As Helium entered households, Amazon previously dominated the market with Amazon Echo and Amazon Web Services (AWS). Even as concern grew over Amazon’s privacy ethics, its always-on microphone continued to stay undercover in numbers larger than everyone that dared to oppose it combined.
The figure above illustrates Amazon’s strong majority even as the market matures, with no alternative products seriously attempting market penetration. According to TechCrunch, just under 30% of internet people use a smart-home speaker, and year-over-year sales growing at a decreasing rate. The decline is troubling to Amazon, which is why they continually lower the purchase price of the Echo Dot. The possibilities of Amazon Sidewalk are dependent on how many people own Amazon products. So, while innovation is lacking, the general utility of smart speakers to most users has not changed.
Instead of expanding product usability, Amazon expanded its data collection abilities. The user data market is robust, and likely why Amazon and Google are substantially cheaper than the privacy-focused Apple. In the case of Sidewalk, there is little incentive to enhance the security of consumer data. Amazon recognizes this consumer ignorance, evident by their silent overnight June 8th rollout of Sidewalk to every compatible device they offer. Another nail in the benefit-of-the-doubt coffin, users must individually opt-out. If Sidewalk is an amazing service, then consumers would happily opt-in to it. The evidence suggests that in the case of Sidewalk, Amazon has much to gain while consumers gain little other than an increased risk to their privacy.
Amazon consumers place devices based on convenience, while Helium users place devices based on efficiency and range. For optimal efficiency, the Helium team designed a public reward system that protects the gateway host’s identity. Instead of a normal map coordinate system that precisely shows user locations, they implemented an H3 grid named the “Hexagonal Hierarchical Geospatial Indexing System,” a proven open-source technology. Unlike squares and triangles, hexagons have the same distance between neighboring hexagons to ensure a fair and predictable reward system. Using the H3 grid, users can easily find the optimal place to install a gateway with confidence that they receive fair rewards. Helium incentives users to install strategically placed gateways to best expand the network’s reach.
The figure indicates Hexagon’s advantage over other shapes for creating equal distances for nodes.
The map above illustrates the H3 grid in New York City, white dots represent gateways.
Gateways are low-powered computers with antennas that broadcast LongFi radio. Many hotspots are based on a Raspberry Pie, a popular computer for IoT devices with a budget friendly price of only $35. Originally users made their own hotspots but unfortunately, this ability was abused and disabled. The HIP19 system implements a simple process for 3rd party manufacturers to produce and sell pre-built hotspots. A system currently underway allows users to manufacture their own hotspots again, but it is a difficult process as the network could be negatively impacted by unsafe hotspots.
Hotspot antennas broadcast LoRaWAN (Long Range Wide Area Network) radio waves. LoRa radio technology released in 2009, the 2 founders (Nicolas Sornin and Olivier Seller) partnered with François Sforza, the three founded Cycleo. Their goal was to simplify electric and gas meter readings with low-cost IoT sensors. The team discovered how to send data utilizing Chirp Spread Spectrum (CSS) Modulation technology used for aviation radars, and similar to dolphins echolocation. In May 2015, Semtech acquired Cycleo, the 3 worked with Semtech to advance the LoRa chips for sensors and gateways. In February 2015 they finalized chip designs along with LoRaWAN protocol. The LoRa Alliance launched, its mission is to promote LoRa technology and expand its global impact. While LoRa does not plan to replace wifi or cellular, it fills in the voids between both technologies.
Figure illustrates the low bandwidth and wide interval of range of LoRa compared to Wi-Fi and Cellular.
Helium is undergoing an ambitious process to establish a network like the one Amazon Sidewalk aims to monitor. Both projects accurately resemble the centralized vs decentralized conflict facing the future of technology. Helium users are incentivized to create an efficient network, where the community can propose and approve protocol changes beneficial to everyone. Compared to Amazon, users are mainly concerned with convenience and price, but are at the mercy of how Amazon uses their data. Both realities side by side indicate that Amazon is indeed losing the fight against crypto. Amazon is only incentivized to improve Sidewalk in terms of data collection, whereas Helium users are paid to develop a network they strongly believe is the future of privacy and security on the internet.
Alexa voice hacks:
Helium hexagon hotspot map:
By Matthew Jessup and Simon DeCapua