Helium, which provides user-run wireless networks, has signed Dish Network as its first major cellular operator partner. Helium’s blockchain-based incentive model drives decentralized network augmentation, disrupting the usual deployment model in which a carrier buys, deploys and controls its equipment.

Dish will extend coverage of its forthcoming 5G network by letting its wireless subscribers run 5G Helium hotspots using US Citizens Band Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum, which includes unlicensed frequencies. In return, customers can earn Helium’s own HNT cryptocurrency tokens for sharing their 5G access.

Dish and Helium have everything to gain

Both Dish and Helium have everything to gain from a successful collaboration. Dish, which owns Boost Mobile and other mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs), will need to quickly expand coverage for its virtualized 5G open radio access network (O-RAN), which Dish aims to commercially launch during early 2022, starting in Las Vegas.

Helium, meanwhile, has been seeking validation from a major cellular network operator or MVNO to prove that its vision for decentralized, crowdsourced networking can succeed in the cellular environment and help expand 5G coverage for its partners.

As a decentralized provider of connectivity using LoRa (a low-power, wide-area network technology) for the Internet of Things, Helium has already proved that blockchain technology and bitcoin incentivization can be used to create a crowdsourced communications network. Helium is growing quickly, with more than 256,000 individual nodes worldwide operated by 93,561 users, though those are predominantly LoRA nodes as the 5G-capable gateways only arrived last month.

Time is right for a model disruption

The collaboration between Dish and Helium delivers a high-profile boost to new approaches for augmenting networks via decentralized, unlicensed networking, a model that is quickly gaining adherents. For example, startup Nodle is using smartphones as nodes and base stations for its Bluetooth Low Energy-powered network for IoT, and it also incentivizes network participants by paying them Nodle Cash, its native cryptocurrency.

The existing network model in which a cellular carrier buys, deploys and owns its infrastructure is not going away anytime soon, but new shared-resource approaches will chip away at it, expanding from pioneering operators such as Dish to larger mainstream operators. As Helium’s business model gains more real-world deployment, ameliorating the dominance of the traditional carrier-owned infrastructure model, the approach will attract interest from more carriers. However, most MNOs and MVNOs will initially be wary of relying upon a shared resource such as Helium’s gateways for network augmentation.

Because CBRS spectrum is unique to the United States, going forward Helium will have to use WiFi or other spectrum for non-US expansion of its 5G ambitions. Nonetheless, the decentralized densification model can easily be applied to other spectrum bands if regulators allow it, opening up potential partnerships worldwide between Helium and 5G network operators.