An 18-month-old Fayetteville company is building a blockchain-based network to operate Internet of Things devices, and it’s paying people and businesses to help.
Mycelium Networks views this system, called a Helium network, as a vehicle for innovation and as a way to retain young talent in northwest Arkansas — talent that wants access to the latest technology and the jobs that come with it.
Internet of Things devices — like smart pet collars, environmental sensors and bike trackers — can operate on the network while moving around the region without fear of signal loss. Entrepreneurs can use it to build new IoT products and services, according to Mycelium spokesperson Jordan Lanning.
She said Mycelium is building the network by recruiting people and businesses to host hot spot devices, which are about the size of a Wi-Fi router. With a staff of 20, Mycelium provides, installs and activates the devices — but doesn’t make them — and handles their maintenance.
The hot spots send small amounts of data to other devices using a radio frequency band (known as 915MHz) that, until recently, hasn’t been widely used by the general public. IoT sensors collect the data, and the hot spots receive the data that IoT users then analyze to make decisions. The hot spots don’t collect data from hosts because they don’t access host networks, Lanning said.
IoT manufacturers load into each of their products a lifetime of data credits, enabling the devices to run on the Helium network. It’s through that system of data credits that Mycelium receives its revenue, allowing it to expand, maintain and enrich the network, Lanning said, adding that the company is profitable.
Hosts receive monthly payments from Mycelium that vary based on the level of install: A simple setup inside a house is $15, whereas a low-profile rooftop setup yields $25, Lanning said. “You kind of set it and forget it,” she said.
Individuals can buy hot spots on their own, but they are expensive and take a level of technical sophistication to set up and keep connected to the network, she said. Lanning said Mycelium encourages people to operate the network on their own and is focused on building the network where it would otherwise not exist.
“A lot of people who do this for us, they’re really interested in the technology of it, and building this network for their community and for the things that this will eventually provide for the community,” she said.
The company aims to max out by the end of the year on needed hot spots, Lanning said. It has already recruited hundreds of hosts and needs more at homes and businesses in specific places throughout Benton and Washington counties, she said.
Lanning said one of the advantages of the Helium network is that it allows IoT devices to not be directly connected to the larger internet, keeping the internet robust even as the number of connected devices grows. Also, IoT devices don’t require a large amount of data to function, so there’s a cost advantage to having them operate on such a network, she said. For example, IoT devices wouldn’t require the expensive microchip needed to connect them to the internet via a cell tower, and IoT device owners wouldn’t have to pay for more data than they need to use their IoT devices.
The network is environmentally friendly as well, since it can negate the need for a new cell tower, and it offers more security because of the blockchain technology it’s based on, Lanning said. Blockchain refers to a digital ledger of transactions that can’t be altered after they are recorded.
“At Mycelium, one of our core beliefs is that decentralization, particularly through the proliferation of blockchain technology, will change almost everything about how we design and build networks, systems, and our societies,” co-founder Rishi Mittal said by email.
“We believe that the people of northwest Arkansas are ready for and deserve this push into the future. Our hope is that through the work Mycelium is doing for our community, that northwest Arkansas emerges as a global leader in blockchain, much like Silicon Valley did for the internet.”
The technology is not without its skeptics, who call it speculative and overhyped, and say it doesn’t have staying power. Mittal said he would tell them: “Many new projects are short-lived and could be scams. Mycelium has an incredibly gifted team of individuals who have spent years in this arena, and we truly believe and fully invest in any of the networks we build and deploy.”