The Internet of Things may soon run on decentralised networks

Helium can be used to connect devices such as e-scooters, smart pet collars and smart electricity meters to the Internet of Things. Hotspot operators are paid for their expenses with the cryptocurrency HNT. — dpa

SAN FRANCISCO/DÜSSELDORF: The “Internet of Things” (IoT) is in a gold-rush mood. Last year alone, market experts estimate that more than €15bil (RM68.97bil) were spent on networking everyday objects with the Internet and with each other.

The range of IoT devices is very wide, including such things as smart collars for dogs, networked street scooters and heating thermostats, and public trash cans that send a signal when they need to be emptied.

While the potential for new smartphone contracts is gradually being exhausted, the IoT growth curve points steeply upward. Growth rates of 20% a year and more are expected.

But it all depends on network capacity and there new players are vying with conventional telecom providers.

However, these new providers are not seeking their fortune on the radio waves of LTE and 5G, which are subject to licensing, but instead are exploiting the LoRaWAN (Long Range Wide Area Network) protocol. This is license free and can be used to cover distances of several kilometres.

One such network is Helium. The San Francisco-based company Helium Systems was co-founded by Shawn Fanning, who brought the music industry to the brink of collapse in the early years of the Internet with Napster.

Similar to the Napster music exchange, Fanning’s approach at Helium is not to rely on centralised structures, but rather on the power of the decentralised masses.

Most of the hotspots that connect Helium’s wireless network to the Internet are not operated by partner companies, but by private individuals.

In return, these individuals receive tokens for the cryptocurrency HNT, which can also be exchanged for dollars or euros. Currently one HNT token is worth around €20 (RM92).

The gateway operators are rewarded with the cryptocurrency for providing network coverage and they also get a share of the revenue that Helium’s commercial customers pay for transporting their data.

Mining HNT doesn’t depend on energy-hungry computing operations the way Bitcoin does. Instead a Helium gateway requires no more power than an energy-saving light bulb.

The Helium network now consists of more than 650,000 hotspots in about 47,000 cities and 164 countries, and its potential has attracted plenty of well-known investors.

Helium says the LoRaWAN network is significantly less expensive than data transmission using traditional mobile communications.

LoRaWAN technology also offers a lot of potential when it comes to connecting IoT devices.

At Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, for example, it is used to track baggage and goods, while in Schaffhausen, Switzerland, the city government uses the technology to monitor parking lots.

In Lyon, France LoRaWAN is used to measure visitor flows in museums and department stores.

Of course traditional mobile operators won’t let companies like Helium take over the Internet of Things without a fight. They point out their advantages over decentralised networks.

“Licensed networks bring the maximum quality and the highest possible security to the Internet of Things,” says Hannes Ametsreiter, head of Vodafone Germany. This is highly important he says, for example, to logistics companies that network containers or packages. – dpa

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