In the late 1990s, when there existed nearly a dozen newly minted ‘digital cellular’ carriers, a seismic trend occurred: The carriers elected to outsource the ownership, development and operation of their cell sites. This was unheard of. Network operators universally built their own towers for their own antennas which communicated on the spectrum they owned.

Talk about a paradigm shift. To go from owning your own infrastructure to leasing antenna space from independent tower owner. It did not happen overnight. It also gave rise to today’s tower REITs American Tower, Crown Castle, SBA Communications and even DigitalBridge whose executive team got started in the tower sector.

Today, I’m reminded of that era more than 25 years ago, with what looks like another paradigm shift in wireless infrastructure: the rise of the ‘decentralized wireless’ network.

Two companies have emerged in just the past year that are reinventing what it means to deploy wireless infrastructure. The Helium Network, in conjunction with the Nova Labs, are the most publicized network. Pollen Mobile is the second to the scene with a slightly different business model.

According to my friends at CalChip Connect, “Decentralized Wireless is a community-maintained network offering public wireless services to IoT developers and consumers. In exchange for doing so, hosts earn a valuable cryptocurrency called the Helium Network Token (HNT). In two years, together with a strong and growing community of enthusiasts, Helium has built the largest public LoRaWAN® network in the world, but the story has only just begun.”

In October of 2021 Dish Network Corp. agreed to partner with Helium to help build out Dish’s own planned nationwide 5G wireless network. Helium’s role is to use their incentive model with Dish customers to pay them in HNT to host their own 5G hotspots. Dish holds numerous airwave licenses that it must use or lose, providing additional motivation for getting Helium’s help. In September GigSky created the world’s first 5G mobile plan, and it will use the Helium network.

According to Fierce Wireless, “People buy Pollen’s network equipment with U.S. dollars. $7,500 buys a Buttercup Flower, a mini tower with two antennas and a base station, made by Baicells. The Buttercup can be roof-mounted and backhauled via Ethernet. A more compact version of the gear, called a Dandelion, sells for $1,800, plus a $49 window[1]mounted gateway that connects to Ethernet. Both the Buttercups and the Dandelions are currently sold out on the Pollen website.”

Also, according to Fierce Wireless, “Silicon Valley investors clearly expect Pollen Mobile to make money, and it won’t come from the sale of CBRS small cells. Pollen says its ultimate vision is to publish open-source standards for all its hardware, allowing anyone to build their own “Flowers” and connect to the Pollen network.”

Minchul Ho of Baicells, writes: “I think of Helium like a prototype for this kind of infrastructure: what if someone could stick a box in their window, turn it on, and become their own cell tower all of a sudden. I hope this has started a movement towards people realizing you can do this in an open-source way without a big telco carrier.”

For the last century, telecom networks have been centrally defined, deployed, and managed, often requiring extraordinary sums of capital and administration by utility-scale private companies. Helium and Pollen are rewriting that script, but do they have staying power? “Build it and they will come” has not always been the best model.

“The world needs a private, anonymous, and decentralized global wireless communications network that is built, owned, and operated by its users,” the Pollen team explained in a recent whitepaper.

For now, it may be a good idea to watch and wait as the DeWi movement takes hold and transitions to a broad-based Do It Yourself (DIY) private network movement. We’ll have to see if participants actually earn rewards in cryptocurrency, and if this type of reward has any value at all.