“That incentive model, powered by crypto, actually made sense in this case,” Mr. Mong said.
So the company tore up its old business model and settled on a new one. Instead of building its network itself, Helium would make it fully decentralized and let users build it themselves by buying and connecting their own hot spots. Participants would be paid in crypto tokens, and they’d get to vote on proposed ideas for changes to the network. If the price of those tokens rose, they’d make even more money, and set up even more hot spots.
The new model, which was released in 2019, worked like a charm. Crypto fans raced to set up Helium hot spots and start generating crypto tokens. They traded tips on Reddit and YouTube for increasing the range of their hot spots, by attaching them to tall buildings or putting antennas on their roofs. Some hot spot owners claim to have made thousands of dollars a month this way, although earnings have fallen as more hot spots have been added to the network.
This, I’ve learned, is one of crypto’s superpowers — the ability to kick-start projects by providing an incentive to get in on the ground floor. Not everything could be improved by attaching itself to a cryptocurrency mining scheme. But in Helium’s case, crypto made sense as a way to encourage participation and give hot spot owners the satisfaction of building something they owned.
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi, a computer programmer in Philadelphia who hosts a podcast about Helium, told me that the network’s decentralization was the biggest selling point.
“If this network was built on some centralized platform, there’s always the chance that the platform I.P.O.s or they get acquired, and suddenly this whole physical infrastructure that was built by loads of people is at the whims of whichever company owns it,” he said.
I can find a lot to like about Helium. Unlike many crypto projects, it’s a real product used by real people and companies every day. The people involved in it aren’t brazen speculators, and most appear to be genuinely interested in creating a decentralized wireless network. (A cardinal rule of Helium’s 140,000-member Discord chat server is that you’re not allowed to discuss token prices.) And it’s going to become more useful in the coming months, as new kinds of 5G hot spots make it possible to send data over the network at higher speeds.