Although Austin, Texas-based REALLY propounds a decentralised wireless (DeWi) dream of networks “powered by the people,” the company’s DeWi network is still largely notional at this point, covering only 20% of a single city in the Lone Star State.
Consequently, REALLY’s recently announced wholesale relationship with T-Mobile US will provide some much-needed actual coverage for its upcoming MVNO. Meanwhile, the company’s decision to sidestep the crypto winter by paying hosts in US dollars could prove a boon for actually building out the community-powered mobile network at the forefront of its ethos.
First came the platform/pulpit
REALLY introduced a mobile plan comparison platform in February 2023, enabling US consumers to compare hundreds of mobile phone plans from 50-plus mobile operators and MVNOs. Besides helping folks shop for the wireless plan that best meets their needs and budgets, the website also aims to do some heavy lifting in the effort to amplify REALLY’s DeWi vision. The company certainly hopes to convince some of those shoppers to help build its network and, in doing so, maybe get a few bucks back from their outgoing monthly broadband spend.
Alongside the comparison tool, REALLY announced $18m in seed funding to expand the operational and development efforts for its proposed blockchain-powered mobile network. That network, while central to REALLY’s ethos, is also the very definition of nascent; by the end of this year, the REALLY DeWi network will still cover less than half of Austin, Texas.
Now comes the MVNO
To be clear, T-Mobile makes for a good partner here. As REALLY proselytises about the DeWi vision, the company can also calm customers worried about shoddy connections on a low-cost MVNO by touting T-Mobile’s 5G network plaudits.
Of course, this all bears more than a passing resemblance to Helium and its recent launch of MVNO service riding on T-Mobile’s network. Helium, a pioneer of the DeWi model with its LoRaWAN network for IoT devices, started building a shared network using CBRS radios for higher-powered devices like smartphones in H2 2021, before announcing its own MVNO deal with T-Mobile in September 2022 and rolling out commercial service in Miami, Florida in August 2023.
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Unfortunately, Helium’s model isn’t bearing a ton of fruit for its hosts these days. While it has managed to get around a million LoRaWAN nodes installed on host premises, the return for hosts has become meager after big early dividends. Moreover, while the company touted 8,500 host CBRS small cells deployed in February 2023, the number of active CBRS hotspots shown on the company’s site had plummeted to under 3,500 as of this writing.
REALLY ditching the crypto baggage
One place where REALLY has done itself a favour in the effort to get a widespread DeWi network up and running is opting to pay hosts a flat fee in US currency. The crypto winter took a lot of wind from DeWi’s sails as hosts saw the value of any token-based payouts largely dry up. And that’s before you get to the large number of consumers already wary of cryptocurrency. Moreover, REALLY’s proposed $50/month payout is not a trivial sum; for many, that would offset the entire home broadband bill.
REALLY’s most dire straits will prove to be matters of scale and credibility. Launching an MVNO service outside of its limited DeWi footprint is a starting gun, currently slated to go in Q4 2023; the company will need to scale its DeWi network at an accelerated pace in order to offload enough traffic to make the margins work for customers riding entirely on T-Mobile’s network – and the company needs to do so before the early funding runs dry.
While the REALLY seed round is commendable – and would be a windfall if the company could stop its buildout at the Austin city limits and call it a day – its ambitions run larger than a single city in Texas.
Without the war chest Helium has built (some $200m in its March 2022 Series D funding round alone), REALLY’s “network for the people” could wind up just being another low-cost, value-oriented MVNO getting deprioritised service on one of the big guy’s networks.