The new 5G mobile network technology is getting its first deployments, but that’s not the only communications game in town. A technology that tracks lost scooters people rent could play a role in the coming years in digital retail and payments, at least going by recent reports.
The innovation — and potential disruption — stems from a company called Helium, which describes itself as a peer-to-peer wireless network. The company was founded in 2013 to “build the world’s first decentralized wireless network,” according to the Helium website. Now the company has recently raised $15 million in capital, bringing its total to some $51 million.
“That’s in part because one of Helium’s co-founders is Napster inventor Shawn Fanning,” one recent report stated. “Investors are betting that he can change the tech world again, this time with a wireless protocol that like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth before it could unlock unique business opportunities.”
The company has launched what it calls Helium Hotspots, with nationwide shipping set for the fourth quarter, following introduction in Austin. Those hotspots reportedly will sell for $495 and provide 200 times the range of regular WiFi at a fraction of the cost. The technology reportedly “can help track stolen scooters, find missing dogs via IoT collars and collect data from infrastructure sensors,” among other tasks.
In fact, Helium is already working with scooter provider Lime to track those transportation devices.
According to the report, consumers connect those hotspots “to their Wi-Fi and put it in their window so the devices can pull in data from Helium’s IoT sensors over its open-source LongFi protocol. The hotspots then encrypt and send the data to the company’s cloud that clients can plug into to track and collect info from their devices.”
Company officials have told reporters that it can take perhaps 200 hotspots to provide full connectivity for a city. There is speculation that because the hotspots need to be broadly distributed, rather than stacked in one place, and the upfront price is too high for most individuals, Helium might partner with retail chains on deploying them.
Helium does position itself as an alternative to telcos. That said, there is no solid indication that this technology could provide any serious rival to ongoing deployments of 5G mobile network technology, which are gaining steam. But the company does demonstrate that communication — including the digital messages vital for retail and payments — can come in different forms.
That lesson has been playing out in the emerging ecosystem of connected vehicles — which, as PYMNTS research has shown, stands as a significant opportunity for web-enabled commerce and payments. As the connected vehicle ecosystem grows, the automobiles that are part of the effort are racing toward their 5G future — the new mobile technology promises to significantly boost payments and commerce for commuters and other drivers in the coming years. But a few roadblocks have to navigated before that happens in full.
The first is just making the technology work well enough to provide reliable support to connected cars and trucks. Mobile network operators have started the hard work of 5G deployments but there is still a ways to go.
Another potential problem — though one that seems on the path to being solved in favor of 5G — is the push by some organizations to use older Wi-Fi standards for the emerging ecosystem for connected vehicles. The debate has mainly played out in Europe.
Internet of Things
When it comes to Helium, it’s not difficult to see how the technology could play a role in the expanding Internet of Things, too.
The Internet of Things (IoT) is about much more than the actual things, of course.
All those “smart” appliances, speakers, TVs, vehicles, thermostats and other devices connect to networks and infrastructure in certain ways, with that back-end work a relatively significant source of anxiety in the world of digital payments and commerce. Among the main challenges that push faces is the question of security. Just consider this bit of evidence from a survey report from Kaspersky Lab: 54 percent of global organizations that responded to the survey “claim that the increased risks associated with connectivity and the integration of IoT ecosystems are a major cybersecurity challenge,” as well as new types of IoT security measures that need to be implemented (50 percent) and the implementation of IoT use cases (45 percent).
For now, though, Helium is winning over investors, and looks set to keep pushing itself closer to the consumer mainstream later this year.