On Friday, Mashable reported that Helium, a crypto project praised by The New York Times earlier this year and whose parent company is backed by investment firms like Andreessen Horowitz, had been misleading people about the companies it works with. Helium advertises on its homepage that Lime, the mobility company behind those electric scooters and bikes, uses its crypto-powered mesh wireless network. The company, however, told Mashable that it hasn’t had a relationship with the company since 2019, and that it had only ever initial testing with Helium’s tech.
Now, Salesforce, whose logo appeared on Helium’s website right next to Lime’s, says that it also doesn’t use the technology. “Helium is not a Salesforce partner,” Salesforce spokesperson Ashley Eliasoph told The Verge in an email. When I followed up to ask about the graphic below, which appeared on Helium’s website, Eliasoph said that “it is not accurate.”
Sometime between 4:35 PM ET and 5:30 PM ET, Lime and Salesforce’s logos were removed from Helium’s home page. The Verge sent an email to Helium asking about its relationship with Salesforce at 4:48PM ET, which the company hasn’t responded to at the time of this writing.
Unlike many crypto projects, it’s actually relatively easy to understand Helium’s core pitch (though there are absolutely ways to complicate it if you want). The idea is that you put a Helium hotspot — which could cost anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars — in your house, and the network’s users connect to it when they’re close by and need some data. The more data that goes through your hotspot, the more HNT (Helium’s cryptocurrency) you’d earn.
In short, it’s a sort of decentralized mesh network, where the individuals running the nodes are able to profit from providing their data. (It is worth noting, though, that using your home internet like this violates the terms of service agreements for many internet service providers.) The economics supposedly works because companies or individuals pay to use Helium’s network instead of, say, cellular data.
Members of the r/helium subreddit have been increasingly vocal about seeing poor Helium returns.
On average, they spent $400-800 to buy a hotspot. They were expecting $100/month, enough to recoup their costs and enjoy passive income.
Then their earnings dropped to only $20/mo. pic.twitter.com/0jx2zLUaiA
— Liron Shapira (@liron) July 26, 2022
Now, though, we have to ask: who wants to pay for it? Not many people, it seems. As one Twitter thread points out, a report from The Generalist says that only around $6,500 worth of data credits (or DCs) were spent to access Helium’s network last month. That’s a sharp contrast to the millions of dollars people have spent on equipment to set up hotspots for the network in hopes of profiting, and it’d be shockingly low if Lime were actually connecting its scooters to the network, or if Salesforce customers were using it to monitor warehouses, like Helium pitched in 2017.
The New York Times article, which called Helium an example of “how crypto can be quite useful in solving certain types of problems,” listed Lime as well as Victor, a rodent and reptile trap company, as Helium users. Lime’s obviously now denied that’s the case (and says it’s sending a cease and desist to Helium), and Victor didn’t immediately respond to The Verge’s questions about whether it uses the network. However, the site that Helium touted as the place to buy Helium-enabled Victor mousetraps in its announcement of the partnership no longer seems to sell them. There also don’t appear to be any mentions of Helium in Victor’s documentation.
Helium’s documentation, however, does hint at Victor’s products, saying, “a Helium Network user requires 50,000 DCs per month to send data for their fleet of Helium-connected mouse traps. (Yes, these actually exist, and they are glorious.)”
We also reached out to Dish, which announced last year that it would use Helium’s 5G network. That announcement is also posted on Helium’s homepage, right near the top under “latest news.”
I’d like to wrap this up with a parting thought. The author of the Times story says Helium couldn’t really work without crypto technology attached, citing the fact that the company launched without any sort of crypto integration, and only came up with the idea when it was on the brink of collapse. But for years, underserved communities have had to build their own local networks after being ignored by the government and communications companies. That runs contrary to what this chipper Helium ad implies; that people would only be willing to do something for their community if they’re getting paid for it. Then again, it’s not necessarily surprising that Helium misrepresented a vital piece of the puzzle.