Connectivity Where It Matters

Steve Sellers of had a good Twitter thread running through his takes on the Helium Mobile announcement. Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi, host of the excellent The Hotspot podcast, responded with this tweet:

I like Arman’s point about rural areas—Helium Mobile may have the most potential in the places with the worst cell service.1 I’m concerned that Helium’s upcoming quality of service (QoS) requirements for cellular nodes could prevent deployments in some areas where they’d be most helpful.

Under the current plans, there are three QoS criteria cellular gateways will need to meet:2

  • 100Mbps or higher download speed
  • 10Mbps or higher upload speed
  • 50ms or lower latency

About 40% of Helium’s cellular nodes fail to meet these performance standards. Most people falling short will be able to pass the tests after making a few changes, like upgrading their internet service or swapping out lousy networking hardware. But that won’t be the case everywhere. In some places, no sufficiently powerful internet is available. Even with a plan that allegedly offers a 100Mbps download speed and a 10Mbps upload speed, QoS tests will tend to fail since internet service providers’ actual speeds generally fall short of their advertised speeds.

Fortunately, it’s easy to figure out what regions have lousy connectivity. The FCC regularly collects data about where service is available from cellular network operators and internet service providers through Form 477. That data is public.3

There are many ways Helium could leverage this data to adjust quality of service requirements in poorly connected areas. I’ll sketch out two simple options, though there are cases to be made for more complicated approaches.

Option 1: Selectively Drop QoS Requirements

Using the Form 477 data, it’s easy to find all regions lacking internet with speeds above a given threshold. Helium could eliminate the QoS requirements anywhere that doesn’t have internet options advertised to offer at least 200Mbps download speeds and 20Mbps upload speeds.

Helium could also eliminate the QoS requirements in areas that none of the three major cellular networks (Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile) cover. Chances are, this set of areas overlaps heavily with the areas lacking impressive internet service.

In the future, Helium could slowly introduce QoS requirements to these areas. Performance thresholds could be phased in gradually based on the highest quality internet available in each region according to future rounds of Form 477 data.

Option 2: “Starlink Or Better” Threshold

While I’m partial to initially eliminating QoS requirements in poorly connected areas, I can see an argument for keeping a minimum bar. After all, satellite internet is available everywhere in the US.

In poorly connected areas, the minimum performance standards could be set so that decent Starlink setups would generally meet them. For example:

  • 30Mbps or higher download speed
  • 5Mbps or higher upload speed
  • 100ms or lower latency

While this level of performance isn’t impressive, people often overrate what kind of speeds they need for a decent experience on a phone. Backhaul that meets these standards could support multiple phone users that are browsing, messaging, or streaming standard-definition video.

Want My Help?

I’ve worked with Form 477 data a fair amount. If anyone involved with Helium wants me to lend a hand, please reach out.