Pollen Mobile, a product of the Pronto.ai self driving car startup engineering team, burst onto the decentralized wireless scene with a small San Francisco Bay Area launch in February 2022. In Part 1, I established that the Pollen Mobile impressed me by delivering the core product after a super fast development cycle started in late 2021. Given the product is based in CBRS technology and has a working CBRS-based Proof of Coverage mechanism, the Helium community was quick to compare – and judge. In this Part 2, I’ll break down the differences, address the implications and tackle my clickbait headline: is Pollen a Helium 5g killer? (According to Betteridge’s law of headlines: no)
How are they the same?
Helium 5G, despite the name, is firmly rooted in currently available CBRS radio technology underpinned by the 4G LTE protocol (this will evolve as available tech evolves). Pollen shares the exact same mobile hardware & software stack: CBRS radios and Magma packet core. So, both products are able to service modern cell phones: iPhone 11+, Pixel 4+, Samsung s20+. Operational experience in planning deployments, tracking signal propagation and measuring coverage is more or less identical between the products. In this sense, Pollen is an excellent preview of what Helium 5G stands to offer. Both products have set a price of $0.50 per gigabyte of data usage, a rate between 70-90% cheaper than what incumbent MNOs may charge MVNO partners for roaming. Finally, and very important, both projects offer or plan to offer a Proof of Coverage (PoC) mechanism for their CBRS/5G coverage product. Referring back to Part 1, PoC is the rocket fuel for network buildout.
The token economic model also carries some similarities. Helium allocated about 35% of tokens for insiders, Pollen has a similar quantity, and both are subject to lockups & cliffs. There are funds dedicated to community development grants and there is a mechanism to charge for data consumption. However, I argue the differences outweigh the similarities.
Where are they different?
The most glaring differences between Pollen Mobile and Helium 5G come down to foundational societal value offering. Pollen is actually much closer to Helium LoRa than it is to Helium 5G. Helium LoRa started by building a fragmented and disparate LoRa network and achieved roaming status after demonstrating massive scale through real coverage. Helium 5G is taking the opposite approach as Helium LoRa: roaming-first, also known as neutral host.
An obvious criticism for the Pollen roadmap is the lack of market participants, since they have no neutral host plans (yet). Who wants to bother trying to access a wireless network which is admittedly tiny? I’d like to remind readers Helium LoRa was in an identical predicament just two short years ago. (Side note: Pollen has an eSIM mechanism which rewards you every day you connect to the Pollen network with about 75PCN as of today. There is no such mechanism being planned in Helium 5G outside of witnessing.)
With Helium 5G’s neutral host plan, any random individual can roam onto a Helium 5G hotspot with their ordinary cell phone plan, so the total addressable market is enormous from day 1. However, neutral host is like the final boss of network buildout. Striking an agreement with AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon before having a large mature network is a monumental task. What helps to build large networks from scratch? Proof of Coverage! One problem. The Helium 5G proof of coverage roadmap is significantly delayed, deprioritized in favor of neutral host work, but also subject to changes in governance & blockchain roadmap. Without a pivot, there is a chance we won’t see Helium 5G PoC this year. By skipping neutral host and placing CBRS PoC up front, Pollen borrows Helium LoRa’s scaling strategy and does away with Helium 5G’s largest development hurdles. There are people who think Helium 5G doesn’t need PoC to succeed, and they could be right. I don’t want to call the delay in Helium 5G PoC a blunder just yet, but the growth of Pollen may change my opinion.
Currently the Helium 5g Proof of Coverage roadmap claims a testnet by June 2022. Add a few months of margin for validation and that puts the PoC release date somewhere in Q3 or Q4 of 2022. It’s reasonable to say Pollen PoC has beaten Helium to market by between 6-8 months.
Besides the approach to market, Pollen & Helium differ significantly in blockchain selection. Pollen adopted the Solana SPL token whereas Helium is of the era without viable L1’s (pre 2020) so had to create its own L1. This foundational difference has cascading effects, especially when it comes to interplay within emerging DeFi infrastructure.
Finishing with economic differences, Helium is clearly more mature in its economics than Pollen. Helium has several drivers of hodling: validators and (soon) token-lock based governance. Pollen governance, validation, etc, is nebulously dealt with in Phase II and III. Not to mention PCN isn’t even available to trade anywhere. Finally, and most significantly, is how Pollen and Helium address the question of utility. Helium has a fixed-price data credit (DC) system for usage and a floating price token HNT for rewards/validating/voting, whereas Pollen’s one and only token PCN has a notional fixed-price from the start. I believe this is a design decision meant to avoid early conflicts with securities law. After sufficient decentralization, a new system could be voted on which would allow PCN to float. That said, right now there is no detail provided for how a fixed-price PCN token is going to function because that buy/sell arbitrage bot doesn’t just happen on its own.
There is a stark contrast in levels of decentralization within these two projects. Helium continues to impress me with their efforts to remove central coordination from Helium Inc and instead offload responsibilities with the Decentralized Wireless council, or with the manufacturers themselves. Recent examples of this being the requirement for manufacturers to produce and maintain their own hotspot apps and move away from a single Helium app. This is a great move to thrust more responsibility with hotspot makers and also create an opportunity for them to differentiate their product.
Pollen, by virtue of their speed, appears entirely centralized in nature. Much of the inner workings of the project are opaque: lack of API, calculations, smart contract, PoC data. However, in their whitepaper they lay out a path towards transitioning ownership into a DAO type entity. I am confident each concern will be addressed in due time.
From where I stand, Helium is striving for pure & credible decentralization with an ethos resembling Ethereum, whereas Pollen is the scrappy newcomer who has prioritized speed above all else. There are many such dichotomies in the L1 space where teams take significant liberties with the label of “decentralized”, or make conscious decisions to trade decentralization for speed. Perhaps such a scenario is evolving within the decentralized wireless space. There is absolutely room for both approaches and the L1 landscape is proof.
They actually need each other
Its easy to view these projects as competing head to head, but in such a nascent industry I firmly believe the success of one bolsters the success of the other. A project without competition is probably not a great idea to begin with, so competition first and foremost is excellent conceptual validation – it reminds me of the dancing guy analogy. I can see a world where a successful Pollen private LTE network may actually drive customers away from MNOs in dense urban areas, so in response, the MNOs are forced to compete on price and become more likely to explore creative neutral host ideas. Or, perhaps a different outcome: Helium 5G develops private network eSIM functionality and effectively swallows the Pollen addressable market (this function is on the roadmap but lower in priority). Either way it ends up, competition legitimizes an industry and I’ll be eagerly watching & participating.