opinion


How cryptocurrency and distributed 5G networks are helping to close the digital divide

Modern city aerial view and communication network

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Minchul Ho, GM of Baicells Technologies North America, outlines the potential of decentralised mobile networks.

The world embraced digital transformation like never before over the past two years as the COVID-19 pandemic redesigned technology’s critical role not just in entertainment and shopping, but in remote working, access to news and distance learning.

At the same time, the pandemic exposed a long-standing matter of concern: billions of people around the world have limited access to the internet, still less a broadband connection at home. The US is considered to be on the most developed Western countries, yet the FCC estimates that 19 million Americans don’t have access to broadband.

Distributed decentralised open-source software networks are now being explored as a way to encourage and extend connectivity. Consumers can purchase a small cell and connect it to a distributed core network, enabling them to deliver connectivity to their local area. Crucially, in return, they can earn cryptocurrency. This means that coverage can expand rapidly and organically, without the need for operators to foot the entire costs. This can help to extend connectivity in underserved areas for the first time.

The emergence of decentralized networks

In 2020, the US Federal Communication Commission’s authorized full use of the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) bands to service providers on a regional basis to boost the growth of new private networks. In turn, has spurred the development of new decentralized and open-source networks.

FreedomFi, a radio agnostic LTE/5G network core, is one example. It delivers a distributed wireless network over the CBRS spectrum which can then be used to offload cellular data for national telecom carriers such as DISH Wireless and GigSky. FreedomFi has partnered with a start-up called Helium that rewards people for setting up their own decentralised network by paying them in its own cryptocurrency Helium Network Tokens (HNTs).

FreedomFi allows phones to connect to its network but users require a plan with a traditional, centralised carrier like GigSky or DISH. This means that if one user roams onto another user’s network, Helium pays that network operator (the consumer) for the traffic.

Another example is Pollen Mobile, a decentralised mobile network that aims to grow its network by paying its users in a cryptocurrency called Pollen Coin. Pollen Mobile is the world’s first decentralised mobile network that’s built on the blockchain and owned and operated by its users, with privacy at the heart of design. Pollen Mobile is different to Helium and FreedomFi because users can purchase a Pollen SIM and connect their phone to the Pollen network.

To put it simply, FreedomFi and Helium help traditional phone companies expand their coverage while Pollen is building an alternative to traditional phone companies, one that is user owned and operated. The common factor is that all these networks are using cryptocurrencies to entice users to extend the coverage of the networks.

A new opportunity for cryptocurrency development

Most conventional cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin, are produced through “proof of work” which requires computing devices to solve incredibly complex problems which are computationally costly but easy to verify through the decentralised blockchain. This means that the currency can be trusted, but consumes a significant amount of energy.

With distributed networks, such as Pollen Mobile and FreedomFi, users can install compatible small cells to connected devices around their homes, neighbourhoods or commercial buildings and the more devices that are able to consistently join and verify the network, the more cryptocurrency end users can develop.

This approach to generating cryptocurrency restricts the amount of currency that can be generated, preserving its value, while also encouraging an approach that increases values for customers and network users by creating an incentive to expand network coverage. These networks also offer a dramatic reduction in energy use versus conventional cryptocurrency generation.

The network requirements

Networks such as FreedomFi and Pollen Mobile are looking to partner with small cell vendors that can deliver LTE, 5G, and IoT connectivity (LoRa), are affordable and can be easily installed by end users. These small cells must be able to support a wide range of spectrum bands used. In the US, for example, they will need to support, low-band (1Ghz), mid-band (1Ghz to 6Ghz) and high-band (24–47 GHz), either now or in the near future. The technology must also be able to connect a large number of devices, with speeds associated with 5G – 200Mbps plus.

The opportunity for, vendors, operators and consumers to be involved with the growth of new distributed networks is an exciting one. Private 5G wireless networks have existed for a while but the big difference here is the idea that connectivity is becoming democratized. Importantly, this technology could be what is needed to help close the digital divide. Digital divides both reflect and reinforce inequalities leading to worse economic and social outcomes such as fewer job opportunities, weaker educational outcomes, restricted access to goods and services and social isolation. Anything which can build a more open, free and secure digital future for everyone is to be encouraged.

 

Minchul Ho is the GM of Baicells Technologies North America, a leading manufacturer of plug-and-play fixed wireless LTE and 5G hardware solutions. He is responsible for the company’s day-to-day operations and with growing the market presence of the company within the exploding CBRS technological ecosystem within the United States. Minchul has a proven record of over 25 years of driving sales growth within the Telecom industry with 15 years of that being in the wireless industry and launched his career in the wireless industry as a National Systems Engineer, working his way to a Sales Director at Trilliant, before taking his position at Baicells. Prior to accepting the role of GM at Baicells Technologies North America, Minchul acted as the VP of Operations and Vertical Markets to bring in additional sales opportunities outside of Baicells established wireless internet service providers (WISP) market. Minchul has a degree in Bachelor’s of Science in Physics and Math from University of Texas at Dallas. He currently resides outside of Dallas, Texas.

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