Helium Mobile’s suspiciously cheap phone plan is only for the bravest among us

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Hey, remember Helium Network, the project that was praised by The New York Times for its cryptocurrency-powered approach to public internet before it was revealed that it had been misleading people about its partner companies and that insiders had disproportionately profited from the token? Well, Helium now says it is offering a $5 / month unlimited wireless plan in Miami.

You may be wondering how this is possible. Certainly I am! I have read their explanation several times, and I absolutely have not understood it. I will reproduce it here, in case it makes sense to you:

The beauty of Helium Mobile is that it combines the power of the people-built Helium Mobile Network with the nation’s largest 5G network from our partner. We call this Dynamic Coverage.

By leveraging a network that’s owned and operated by individuals rather than big corporations, Helium Mobile can significantly reduce costs to deliver nationwide service with unprecedented pricing.

I am wondering, for starters, who that partner in the first sentence is. The blog post doesn’t specify. Fierce Wireless does: it’s T-Mobile. The basic idea here is that when wireless users are near Helium hotspots, they can use that to connect; the rest of the time, these people can use T-Mobile’s 5G network.

Let’s take this one step at a time. How unlimited is unlimited? Well, according to Helium’s site:

*The dual-sim approach means we can offer data grouped into two buckets: Data that utilizes the Macro network, and CBRS data provided by the people. Each bucket includes 30GB data usage in a monthly billing cycle. After the allotted 30GB, data speeds may be reduced (for that bucket) for the remainder of the billing cycle to ensure optimal network experience for other subscribers.

So you get 30GB on T-Mobile and 30GB on the Helium Network. After that, you get throttled. Maybe that’s not a problem if you spend a lot of time on your home Wi-Fi or near public hotspots.

Oh, and in case you were curious: crypto isn’t accepted as a payment.

So let’s talk about Helium’s network since that is, I guess, the secret sauce here. How does it work? Well, some people have bought CBRS-equipped hotspots, which have a bigger range than the average Wi-Fi unit. The cheapest one listed on the “Helium Ecosystem” page for Helium Mobile is $999.

The more people who connect to the internet through that hotspot, the more Helium tokens the hotspot owner earns. The main Helium token, called HNT, is worth about $1.90 as of this writing. Just for fun, I popped over to the Helium Network subreddit to see what the community was saying. In a post titled “Worth It?” from three days ago, a user asked if it was worth buying a Helium miner. The consensus appeared to be “no.”

Anyway, tokens aside, there’s a problem with this setup: technically speaking, it might violate your uhhh terms of service for your internet provider. Here’s Comcast’s Xfinity terms of service, for instance, saying you can’t use the connection to “use or run programs that provide network content or any other services, except for personal and non-commercial use.”

Now, just out of curiosity, I checked in at T-Mobile to see how much their monthly mobile coverage costs! Their “essentials” plan is $60 / month for one phone. Like most writers, I’m not very good at math, but I think $5 / month is a lot less than $60 / month.

Let’s say a lot of people sign up for this plan because it is very cheap. I suspect that if Helium’s network in Miami is using standard internet service providers, they might… notice. Then what? I mean, I would love to find out. Will people using the Helium hotspots get booted from their ISPs? If that happens, then basically people are paying $5 / month for T-Mobile service — a great deal for customers but maybe not a great deal for Helium itself.

How is Helium doing? Well, the imagery around announcements is often very telling. Let’s take a look at it!

Image from Helium Mobile’s announcement of its $5 / month unlimited mobile plan. If you look closely at the models in the shot, there appears to be a phone Photoshopped in, badly
Image: Helium Mobile
A picture is worth a thousand words, right?

Those are just very normal fingers on the woman on the right, who is holding what is surely a normal phone very normally. Here’s another normal image:

A second advertising image from Helium Mobile, with a woman holding a phone in a way I’m not sure is physically possible. Her fingers, too, appear Photoshopped, badly.
Image: Helium Mobile
Absolutely normal way to hold a phone.

Look, I think it’s admirable to save costs where you can — particularly if you are offering a $5 / month mobile phone service. Pass those savings onto your consumers, etc.

Anyway, I can’t wait to see how this Miami experiment works out! If previous experience with Helium Network holds, it promises to be a fun time for me, at least.

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