Hot air balloons glide over Turkey, looking not unlike an airborne mesh network.
Anadolu Agency—Getty Images
By Robert Hackett
Updated: May 31, 2019 12:48 PM ET | Originally published: June 14, 2019

Good morning, Data Sheet readers. Robert Hackett, your weekend columnist, filling in for Adam and Aaron today. Since the cats are away, I’ve consulted my trusty buzzword dartboard to see how many fads I might tick off in one go.

Internet of Things? Check. Electric scooters. You bet. Cryptocurrency? Did you even have to ask?

Today I write to you about Helium, a 6-year-old startup cofounded by Shawn Fanning, inventor of Napster (yes, it gets better). The firm, which just raised $15 million on top of $38 million it had already raised, has developed a long-range, low-power wireless protocol for transmitting data. This is not Bluetooth, not WiFi, and no, definitely not cellular. Helium calls its brand of radio frequency communications “LongFi,” because its range is supposedly hundreds of times greater than that of Wi-Fi while remaining more affordable, i.e. a thousand times cheaper, than cellular. To envelop an entire city “only about 50 to 150 hotspots” are required, the company says.

“We call it the people’s network,” says Amir Haleem, Helium’s CEO, who dropped out of college at 18 to play video games professionally, before e-sports were really a thing. (We’re talking Doom and Quake era.) In fact, Haleem met his cofounder Fanning on that scene.

While Helium’s grassroots telecommunications idea may sound kooky, it has already attracted some big name partners. The company is helping Nestle track water levels in its ReadyRefresh coolers inside offices. It is keeping tabs on pets with InvisiLeash. And it is monitoring lost or stolen scooters and bicycles in partnership with Lime. Applications abound anywhere one needs to transmit data on-the-ground back to headquarters.

In order to incentivize people to support the infrastructure, the mesh network that is the heart of Helium’s plan, the company is selling $495 hotspots to consumers. (Er, happy Father’s Day?) These devices, which are said to draw about 6 cents worth of electricity per day, are designed to spit out digital coins every so often. It’s a blockchain “reward system,” Helium says. Presumably, if people take to the idea, these tokens will accrue in value, and consumers will make a profit selling them on cryptocurrency exchanges. Sound familiar?

In recent months the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has ramped up its crackdown on blockchain projects peddling virtual currencies. Indeed, the agency is suing a defiant Kik, the struggling chat app, for hosting a multimillion-dollar “initial coin offering” two years ago. Interestingly, Union Square Ventures, a big Kik backer, co-led Helium’s latest funding round alongside Multicoin Capital, a cryptocurrency-focused investment firm. Hmm.

On the matter of the SEC’s antagonism, Haleem echoes the disappointment of fellow cryptocurrency entrepreneurs. “It’s difficult and frustrating in a way because we wish there was clearer guidance,” he says. When asked about his token’s possible value, Haleem disclaims any knowledge, responsibility, or promise. “The process will play out in secondary or other markets and we’re not involved.”

When I suggest to Haleem that he may eventually face a significant competitive threat in the likes of Apple, which just debuted a Bluetooth-beaconing “find my” feature for locating lost iPhones and other products at its Worldwide Developer Conference, Haleem takes the remark as a sanity-reaffirming compliment, rather than as an existential reality check. “It’s a reminder we’re not actually that crazy,” he says. “This is still a thing people need that hasn’t been solved well, that you can’t do with cellular.”

As zany an idea as Helium’s might seem, there’s something to it. Maybe the company isn’t just full of hot air.

Robert Hackett
@rhhackett
robert.hackett@fortune.com

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