Nova Labs wants to address the connectivity gap with crypto

Nova Labs just raised a $200 million series D led by Tiger Global and a16z. The company’s decentralized wireless network might be an unexpected key to addressing the connectivity gap.

An internet router

Bridging the internet connectivity gap wasn’t something Nova Labs set out to do.

Photo: Stephen Phillips/Unsplash

Nova Labs didn’t set out to address the connectivity gap, but it may have accidentally cast itself in a pivotal role.

The newly minted unicorn — fresh off a $200 million series D funding round led by Tiger Global and a16z — uses blockchain to facilitate a decentralized IoT and 5G hotspot network. This distributed model could be particularly useful to help address the internet affordability gap in densely populated areas. But it’s unclear whether legislators will embrace the new technology — and whether Nova Labs will even try to change their minds.

Nova Labs — then known as Helium — launched its distributed wireless network in Austin, Texas, back in 2019. Austin residents could purchase Helium Hotspots that would broadcast their home internet connection for anyone in the Helium Community to use. The idea is that, while people wouldn’t normally trust strangers to use their home internet, blockchain could facilitate a secure shared connection. The network now consists of over 700,000 hotspots in 170 countries.

In exchange for hosting strangers on the Helium networks, hotspot owners mine tokens that can be sold on secondary markets. The total circulating supply of Helium tokens is now worth around $2.7 billion. Enterprise partners pay for network access based on their data usage, which creates a two-way economic exchange.

The original Helium white paper from 2018 claims this economic model would “inject decentralization into an industry currently controlled by monopolies.” Decentralization would in turn allow network coverage to become a “commodity, fueled by competition, available anywhere in the world, at a fraction of current costs.”

Bridging the internet connectivity gap wasn’t something Nova Labs set out to do, at least not in those terms.

“It’s not something we specifically focused on because, in the beginning — this goes back nine years — the mission was always to just figure out how to build a global contiguous network that was low-cost and easy to use and open,” Nova Labs COO Frank Mong told Protocol.

Mong pointed to the example of San Jose turning to Nova Labs for remote learning, which was “not something we planned for, but it sort of just happened.”

The San Jose partnership probably isn’t as direct as you expect. Rather than giving students access to the Helium network for their schoolwork, San Jose subsidized it through hotspot mining operations.

Here’s how it worked: The San Jose Mayor’s Office Of Technology used funds from the California Emerging Technology Fund to purchase Helium-compatible hotspots to volunteer residents and small businesses. The mining funds from those hotspots were then used to subsidize internet access for over 1,300 households in the form of $120 gift cards. The pilot program officially began in January and details of the fund disbursements are supposed to arrive after six months.

Further complicating the narrative, the California Emerging Technology Fund is a nonprofit endowed by AT&T and Verizon, as required by the California Public Utilities Commission when it approved merger deals for each of the companies in 2005. Somewhat ironically, then, the San Jose project that on its surface appears to be a win for decentralization, and crypto was originally funded by the incumbents Nova Labs set out to challenge in its white paper.

In any case, Mong said the mining subsidy model could act as “UBI for the internet.” The project in San Jose is ongoing, and Nova Labs has seen interest in launching similar programs from mayors all around the world, Mong added.

But the subsidization model is only one way for Helium to address the internet affordability gap, and probably not the most obvious. “I think creating 5G coverage in neighborhoods that normally would not get that coverage because of many economic reasons would be a great place for us to start,” Mong said.

This more direct approach could help Nova Labs benefit from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which allocated $65 billion for expanding internet access. However, it’s unclear whether Nova Labs would attempt to directly tap into that pool of funds. Several of the key partners of Nova Labs — including Dish and series D investor Deutsche Telekom — have undoubtedly set their sights on broadband subsidies. But Mong told Protocol that Nova Labs hasn’t been directly involved in talks with regulators about subidziding connectivity.

“We're no experts in government policy, but we are, I would say, decent at technology and figuring out how to leverage that technology to make some amazing things happen,” said Mong. “We're just trying to continue to push forward this crypto model that we think can solve a lot of cold-start problems, reduce costs of wireless infrastructure for everyone. And hopefully, that reduction in cost means that the on-ramp to the internet is much more affordable and accessible for all.”

This story was updated April 8, 2022 to clarify some of Helium's mechanisms for network-sharing.


Judge Zia Faruqui is trying to teach you crypto, one ‘SNL’ reference at a time

His decisions on major cryptocurrency cases have quoted "The Big Lebowski," "SNL," and "Dr. Strangelove." That’s because he wants you — yes, you — to read them.

The ways Zia Faruqui (right) has weighed on cases that have come before him can give lawyers clues as to what legal frameworks will pass muster.

Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“Cryptocurrency and related software analytics tools are ‘The wave of the future, Dude. One hundred percent electronic.’”

That’s not a quote from "The Big Lebowski" — at least, not directly. It’s a quote from a Washington, D.C., district court memorandum opinion on the role cryptocurrency analytics tools can play in government investigations. The author is Magistrate Judge Zia Faruqui.

Keep ReadingShow less
Veronica Irwin

Veronica Irwin (@vronirwin) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol covering fintech. Previously she was at the San Francisco Examiner, covering tech from a hyper-local angle. Before that, her byline was featured in SF Weekly, The Nation, Techworker, Ms. Magazine and The Frisc.

The financial technology transformation is driving competition, creating consumer choice, and shaping the future of finance. Hear from seven fintech leaders who are reshaping the future of finance, and join the inaugural Financial Technology Association Fintech Summit to learn more.

Keep ReadingShow less
The Financial Technology Association (FTA) represents industry leaders shaping the future of finance. We champion the power of technology-centered financial services and advocate for the modernization of financial regulation to support inclusion and responsible innovation.

AWS CEO: The cloud isn’t just about technology

As AWS preps for its annual re:Invent conference, Adam Selipsky talks product strategy, support for hybrid environments, and the value of the cloud in uncertain economic times.

Photo: Noah Berger/Getty Images for Amazon Web Services

AWS is gearing up for re:Invent, its annual cloud computing conference where announcements this year are expected to focus on its end-to-end data strategy and delivering new industry-specific services.

It will be the second re:Invent with CEO Adam Selipsky as leader of the industry’s largest cloud provider after his return last year to AWS from data visualization company Tableau Software.

Keep ReadingShow less
Donna Goodison

Donna Goodison (@dgoodison) is Protocol's senior reporter focusing on enterprise infrastructure technology, from the 'Big 3' cloud computing providers to data centers. She previously covered the public cloud at CRN after 15 years as a business reporter for the Boston Herald. Based in Massachusetts, she also has worked as a Boston Globe freelancer, business reporter at the Boston Business Journal and real estate reporter at Banker & Tradesman after toiling at weekly newspapers.

Image: Protocol

We launched Protocol in February 2020 to cover the evolving power center of tech. It is with deep sadness that just under three years later, we are winding down the publication.

As of today, we will not publish any more stories. All of our newsletters, apart from our flagship, Source Code, will no longer be sent. Source Code will be published and sent for the next few weeks, but it will also close down in December.

Keep ReadingShow less
Bennett Richardson

Bennett Richardson ( @bennettrich) is the president of Protocol. Prior to joining Protocol in 2019, Bennett was executive director of global strategic partnerships at POLITICO, where he led strategic growth efforts including POLITICO's European expansion in Brussels and POLITICO's creative agency POLITICO Focus during his six years with the company. Prior to POLITICO, Bennett was co-founder and CMO of Hinge, the mobile dating company recently acquired by Match Group. Bennett began his career in digital and social brand marketing working with major brands across tech, energy, and health care at leading marketing and communications agencies including Edelman and GMMB. Bennett is originally from Portland, Maine, and received his bachelor's degree from Colgate University.


Why large enterprises struggle to find suitable platforms for MLops

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, and as larger enterprises go from deploying hundreds of models to thousands and even millions of models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

Photo: artpartner-images via Getty Images

On any given day, Lily AI runs hundreds of machine learning models using computer vision and natural language processing that are customized for its retail and ecommerce clients to make website product recommendations, forecast demand, and plan merchandising. But this spring when the company was in the market for a machine learning operations platform to manage its expanding model roster, it wasn’t easy to find a suitable off-the-shelf system that could handle such a large number of models in deployment while also meeting other criteria.

Some MLops platforms are not well-suited for maintaining even more than 10 machine learning models when it comes to keeping track of data, navigating their user interfaces, or reporting capabilities, Matthew Nokleby, machine learning manager for Lily AI’s product intelligence team, told Protocol earlier this year. “The duct tape starts to show,” he said.

Keep ReadingShow less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of RedTailMedia.org and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories