Experiments with Helium, the P2P cell network

February 4th, 2024

I’ve had on my todo list for a while, to try using a second sim on my phone for data. Most modern phones let you have two sims, to either swap between. Or you can use one for calls and the other for data.

But first let me rewind, I use Google Fi, Google’s cell network. Service wise its fantastic. Google hasn’t built their own physical cell network, it sits on cell phone networks called a MVNO. But unlike cheaper providers they usually have negotiated top priority on the other networks, so your connectivity is fast.

Then when you travel, it seamlessly swaps to the local networks, and your cost stays the same. This was the main drawcard, as when traveling before on TMobile, you were on a slow network or they didn’t have a local partner.

Compounding this, with Google Fi, you have the extra security layer protecting your account, your Google account. This helps diminish the risk of someone stealing your sim or accessing your account.

BUT, the data is expensive, $10/gig. They do have an unlimited plan, which is more reasonable but I’ve kept hearing that this isn’t so good whilst abroad, often being cut off.

So I wanted to explore, why not add a cheaper sim, and set that one to ‘data only’ for domestic use, then Google Fi data when abroad.

In effect:

  • Keep Google Fi as primary phone number, and data whilst abroad.
  • Use a secondary provider, for data.

And it is a low risk thing to try, because if it doesn’t work, just turn off the other sim. And resume your current plan.

Enter Helium, I happened to see the launch early December, $20/month for unlimited calls/text/data, and 5gb tethered.

It has a history, of wanting to make a peer to peer network, where instead of a centralized network, it’s a network of individual participants powering the network. You yourself can get a hotspot and contribute network coverage. Pretty neat. Subscribers can also earn tokens for helping map the network and indicate where data is most needed. This is called Mapping Rewards.

Whilst they continue to build out the network, to stop gap coverage, they have T Mobile as a back haul provider. This provides continuous service where their participants don’t yet have coverage (which to be fair looks fairly nascent).

So I got set up early December and thought would share how the experiment is going. So how is it going? Nearly two months in:

  • I have found I haven’t had to pay yet, as the mobile mapping rewards cover the account fee. Which is a bonus I didn’t expect.
  • The data seems fast, not as fast as Google Fi in the same spot but still it is 5G.
  • I haven’t had any major connectivity issues, a couple of minor ones except ones indoors and then when I popped to NJ, there were a couple whilst it reconnected.

I haven’t tried calling on it, so can’t comment on that.

So far so good, I have reduced my overall mobile bill to circa $18/month (Google FI) plus taxes/international calls. Which is impressive.

A notable downside of Helium, if you enable mapping (which is optional) it does impact your battery. But so you can decide if the trade offs are worth it. I could turn it off and lift my bill to $38/month and it is still pretty reasonable for the set up.

I imagine some of that battery drain is the fact that the phone is running two sims. If you didn’t want to do Google Fi, you could use Helium & Airalo, to grab data when aboard. As Helium is domestic only, at least today.

If you want to join Helium, do use my code, I think we both get $5 off. Same with Google Fi. And/or Airalo.

In signing up to Helium you are by virtue supporting innovation in the mobile space. Forward looking, there’s a view where our cell service might be provided by lower satellites, from Starlink (or others). And a token based network might play a role in that future, to provide global connectivity.

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