Case Study: Helium brings real-world 5G networks on Solana

by Solana Foundation

Case Study: Helium brings real-world 5G networks on Solana


  • Helium is a decentralized LoRaWAN network that powers individual hotspots in more than 170 countries, as well as offering 5G service to certain American cities.
  • The Helium community voted to migrate their blockchain onto Solana by minting nearly one million hotspots as NFTs using state compression.
  • Helium is now enabling other decentralized physical infrastructure projects to verify location data.

You might think that blockchains strictly only exist on the internet — but they can affect the real world, too.

Helium is a prime example of a DePIN project taking advantage of blockchain technology for real world usage. DePIN, or Decentralized Physical Infrastructure Networks, projects use decentralized technology to power real-world uses, such as street maps, rendering power, cab-hailing services, and more. Helium focuses on wireless networks with an ever-growing constellation of user-owned hotspots enabling communities to improve their internet and cell coverage without traditional telecom companies.

“With Helium, you can create the coverage you want to see in the world,” says Helium Foundation COO Scott Sigel. 

Originally hosted on its own blockchain network, Helium migrated to the Solana blockchain in April 2023. The move represents one of the most significant layer 1 blockchain migrations ever, and will support further expansion for the world’s largest decentralized wireless network. 

Founded by Amir Haleem, Shawn Fanning, and Sean Carey in 2013, Helium started with a mission to create decentralized wireless infrastructure to support Internet of Things (IoT) devices. The brand released its Helium Hotspots in 2019. Helium Hotspots are sort of like miniature cell towers, creating a peer-to-peer wireless network to connect small, low-power devices over long distances. The hotspots used a new protocol that Helium dubbed LongFi, which combined the long-range capabilities of LoRaWAN with Helium’s own blockchain. Users who bought and hosted hotspots received tokens in exchange for providing nodes for the network. 

A Helium hot spot.

A Helium Hotspot. Image courtesy Helium.

There are now hundreds of thousands of active Helium Hotspots distributed in more than 170 countries, making Helium the largest LoRaWAN network in the world, as well as offering 5G cellular coverage to a growing list of cities in the United States.

“Helium is the quintessential representation of a DePIN project,” says Amelia Daly, who works on the ecosystem team for the Solana Foundation. “It's crowdsourced hardware, it's super cost-effective, it's collectively owned, it aligns incentives and rewards. It’s remarkably easy to get involved. It's also super democratized."

When Helium first started working on creating their network in 2017, they relied on their own unique blockchain which presented some quirks and challenges as it grew. For instance, Sigel says, Helium originally allowed any user’s hotspot to be part of the consensus group that worked to confirm the state of data on the chain, making the network completely decentralized. But it got tricky to manage as the network grew, Sigel explains: Most hotspots were in private homes, with a traditional internet service provider backing up their coverage. That meant that whenever a large ISP experienced a service outage, there was a chance that the whole network would get held up. The community voted to fix the problem, Sigel says, foresaw tougher problems when the company turned its gaze onto becoming a “network of networks” — offering access to 5G nodes to improve the existing cellular coverage of big telecom companies — in 2021. 

“5G scalability is something that is difficult for all of the incumbent telcos, and the idea that they could roam onto a community-built network to plug in those gaps of coverage is very, very compelling to them,” he says. “But we realized that supporting multiple wireless standards and multiple tokens was going to be a lot for our chain to handle.”

Once the community had created a list of non-negotiables — a large developer network to help spread the workload, composability, more token utility, and a smart contract platform — Solana quickly became the obvious choice. The Helium Foundation put a migration to Solana to a community vote.

“The Helium community approved it by an overwhelming margin,” Sigel says.

Helium joined the Solana network by minting each hotspot as an NFT — a process made possible by the recent release of state compression. Minting a compressed NFT costs fractions of a penny on the dollar compared to an uncompressed token. The NFTs act as credentials, verify authenticity, and provide data for developers. They also enable token-gated experiences.

“Compressed NFTs made the migration more economically viable by several orders of magnitude,” Sigel says. “I think any other project that is looking to move over such a large state is going to get huge benefits from leveraging that technology.” 

The migration itself went perfectly, Sigel says. “No hiccups and nothing to report. It was boring! That’s exactly what we were hoping for.” 

Unlocking new opportunities across Solana projects

Helium’s move to Solana could lead to a ripple of growth across the entire DePIN movement. “Helium really represents the first DePIN business that things could be built on top of,” Daly explains. 

For example, Hivemapper — which aims to compete with Google Maps API with a democratized, user-generated world map created with individual dashcams — recently started using Helium to verify the location of each driver. By clocking which Helium hotspots a Hivemapper dashcam passes while traversing a particular route, the network can confirm that drivers are where they claim to be — without storing information that could violate their privacy.

“It’s great to see teams that are more people native to Solana thinking about how they can bring utility to Helium,” Sigel says. “And then Helium folks who are starting to engage with the Solana community to figure out what you can achieve with connected hardware when you suddenly have real world analytics.”

It’s only the beginning. Solana’s interoperable ecosystem, combined with its low cost and scalable innovations like compressed NFTs, could unlock new, decentralized, community-run infrastructure for both businesses and users.

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