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Update: This is my most popular blog post after 5 years and over 150 articles. Thank you for clicking! I wrote a follow-up article providing more information about how to obtain a miner and other ways to invest in the space. Please note that many of the figures provided below are subject to change.
A few weeks ago, I became familiar with Helium. It’s a relatively-new blockchain using a unique Proof-of-Coverage (PoC) protocol. Helium provides decentralized wireless data services via LongFi, which is essentially a low-bandwidth WiFi signal transmitted via radio waves. Transmitting this signal and improving coverage in your area allows you to mine Helium tokens (HNT).
There are only about 18,000 hotspots today. There is a supply bottleneck on the hotspots and it’s impossible to build your own. Thankfully, my friend had an extra one and, though he wouldn’t sell it to me, I allowed him to set it up in my apartment. We decided to purchase an after-market, 3rd-party, external antenna as well. Since there are so few guides on the internet, I’ve decided to share some information based on my experience.
I thought it would be helpful if I posted my full setup.
Rak Hotspot Miner by Cal-Chip: The most popular Helium miner, which I own.
[Sold Out] Proxicast 10 dBi Omnidirectional Antenna: Fiberglass antenna providing great gain with a simple mount. This is what I used for this blog post. Note that so many people bought this antenna that it’s now been sold out for weeks. I provide some alternatives below.
[Alternative 1] 5.8dBi antenna from Rak: Excellent mid-range antenna sold directly by hotspot manufacturer Rak Wireless. A great value since it also includes a cable and pole mounting gear.
[Alternative 2] 14dBi Antenna from Signalplus: New antenna released after I first wrote this blog post providing even larger gain than Proxicast for long-range applications.
Antenna Cable (important): This cable converts between RP-SMA and N formats, allowing you to use the Proxicast antenna with your hotspot. If the antenna you buy doesn’t include a cable, you’ll need to buy one. Don’t buy the longest one possible! See my post where I discuss why cable length is important.
Antenna Mounting Hooks: Though I bought these hooks for a different purpose, they fit snugly into the Proxicast antenna mount, allowing you to mount the outdoor antenna on glass. Not applicable to other antennas.
NETGEAR Nighthawk AC1900: Powerful, feature-rich router. Overkill for small apartments but it provides serious peace of mind and future-proofing. Chances are, you already have a router.
How to Obtain a Helium Miner
Edit: I’ve received a lot of follow-up questions regarding other options to obtain miners. I wrote a separate blog post where I explain the options in greater detail.
Unfortunately, we’re in the midst of a supply crunch. The first batch contained only 10,000 RAK miners. The newer production runs have been delayed significantly and the base price was increased to $345 last week by Cal-Chip, the primary distributor.
There is a next-gen production run currently being manufactured by Nebra. These indoor and outdoor hotspots are supposed to start shipping in March and April, respectively. I’m signed up for one of each and I’m sure I’ll write a blog post once I get them set up.
In dense city centers, mining is extremely profitable. Think of it this way, what other investment costs $350 and produces such a high ROI that you can recoup your investment in just two months? Realizing this, some people are willing to pay up to 10x of the MSRP! Considering the ROI at the current coin value, this isn’t outrageous. It makes for some funny eBay listings, however:
The other solution is to build your own miner. There was a pilot program, which was recently discontinued. All mining is currently restricted to proprietary software on built-for-purpose hardware. At the current time, it is not possible to build a DIY miner.
How Beneficial is the After-Market Antenna?
Though I don’t actually own the miner in my apartment, I follow its performance closely. Before I had even purchased the external antenna, the miner’s sticker price had been covered. That is–in barely over one week, the value of the Helium mined was in excess of the total cost of the hotspot. This is not investment advice but: holy shit.
So, like any entrepreneur, I thought about making a capital improvement. The stock antenna on the RAK miner has roughly a 2dbi gain. This isn’t bad at all and most city-dwellers are happy with it. One problem is that the manufacturer’s antenna is attached to the little brick that is the miner, so it’s difficult to mount it in a high place with an optimal line of sight.
I ended up purchasing the Proxicast 10dBi gain omnidirectional outdoor antenna. It seemed like it had the best gain available while remaining omnidirectional. I figured that even a 10% improvement would lead to the antenna being paid for in under two months.
Though there are posts online where users claim that upgrading antenna’s doubled their performance, my improvement was modest. There are a few excellent-quality blog posts out there that explain why higher db isn’t always better. I will summarize: your signal reaches farther but becomes more directional. In some areas, this actually could be worse depending on where other hotspots are located.
The pure gain on the antenna is outweighed in importance by antenna placement. Upon having a better antenna with a more-visible mounting location, my miner almost immediately started communicating with hotspots that were farther away. Unfortunately, my apartment faces in one of the less busy directions and I’m unable to place the antenna outside. I don’t have a great benchmark since I had my hotspot for so little time before upgrrading, but I’ve observed a 15% improvement week-over-week.
Other Antennas to Consider
There are, of course, other options for those who don’t want to shell out half the price of their hotspot to replace the antenna.
Since I first wrote this blog post, Signalplus released an antenna with a monster 14dBi gain. Just based on the stats, this would be excellent for long-range applications but likely quite poor for those in urban areas. You also have the 5.8dBi mid-range option directly from Rak and the Nebra pre-order options of 3dbi, 5.8dbi, and 8dbi. If you already have a miner, chances are you don’t want to get stuck waiting on a pre-order. That would be leaving dollars on the table.
Antenna and Hotspot Placement
There will be plenty of sources of impedance for your miner. Moving it closer to the window is usually better, but placing it outside is best. Glass windows can refract the signal, while UV treatments on windows can more severely limit the range. I live in a sheer glass skyscraper, so mounting my antenna outside my apartment is not feasible.
My window mount is inexpensive and I’m happy to share how it works. A lot of these antennas have burly metal connectors meant for outdoor and industrial use. I just wanted to place mine in the window without the use of tape or without blocking much of my view.
These adhesive hooks that I purchased for another purpose ended up fitting perfectly into the holes of the Proxicast mount. These hooks allow you to mount the antenna pretty much anywhere without dealing with nails or screws. I used these hooks to mount my antenna to my large glass windows. Note: if you use all four hooks, you won’t be able to slide the antenna mount on and off–it’ll be fixed there until you remove the hook adhesive from the mounting surface. I recommend using two hooks to start, so you can remove your antenna easily.
Guests have been genuinely impressed with how sleekly the antenna is mounted. You barely know it’s there. You can barely see the mounting hooks.
As you may know, the signal does not pass through buildings. It’s helpful that I’m located on such a high floor in a flat region and in one of the tallest buildings in the direction that I face. However, I face west, where the population density drops dramatically. Most of the action is to the northeast. This hotspot outperforms most other miners in my building, but if I paid the premium rent to move to a north-east-facing apartment in the same building, I’m confident that the Helium miner returns would more than pay for the difference in rent.
Helium (HNT) is a promising technology for IoT devices but it remains to be seen whether the appreciation in token price is simply being driven by institutional investors and manufactured demand. The hardware shortage is causing a bit of mania and is slowing adoption of the technology. Frustration is mounting as manufacturers scramble to boost hotspot output.
Still, those with miners or those who expect to receive miners soon are right to want to maximize their investment. I feel that purchasing a 3rd-party antenna was worthwhile. This is a unique blockchain technology that will likely grow in popularity while inadvertently teaching its users important lessons about how RF communication works.