Editor's Choice

Helium mining – Popular hype or real business opportunity? – Part 2

29 June 2022 Editor's Choice Telecoms, Datacoms, Wireless, IoT

Following on from Part 1 of my article in the May issue of Dataweek (see www.dataweek.co.za/16437r), I hereby invite you to rejoin me on my journey as I delve further into the practicalities of mining Helium cryptocurrency – the frustrations, the successes, the ups and the downs.

Today, let’s start by talking about antennas. It is quite difficult to see the difference an antenna makes. This is because the view on the Helium app is delayed by a couple of days, and you therefore need to use the Helium Explorer page via an Internet browser. Even this, I suspect, is still giving you a delayed view, but it is workable.

The other useful tool to keep in mind is the Helium coverage map (https://explorer.helium.com/hotspots/), which shows you the distances you are currently achieving when communicating with other gateways. Every antenna I have tested has been on test for at least a week so I can get a decent ‘feel’ for what it is actually doing.

Chris Viveiros.

The SenseCAP M1 gateway comes with a small stubby antenna, listed as having 2,8 dBi gain, and it is suggested that you mount the device as high as possible and next to a window. In reality, this is not always practical – my first device was mounted at the top of my garage roof, on the inside! Suffice it to say my earnings were not great.

I then added a 6 dB outdoor antenna, and the earnings were easily six times what I was achieving with the standard stubby antenna, so this clearly made a huge difference. This antenna was mounted outside, on top of my garage roof, roughly 5 metres off the ground. In terms of coverage, I would say the average distance I was achieving was about 10 km, with the odd 25 km connection taking place (from Benoni to Johannesburg).

I later tested an antenna which was being marketed as having 12 dB gain, mounted 10 metres high. Based on the device datasheet, I had my doubts as to whether it was genuinely a 12 dB antenna, as it was shorter than a similar 11 dB antenna which I trusted. Nevertheless, the tests on our network analyser showed that the 12 dB antenna was exceptionally well tuned, and I tested it in the field for about a week.

As expected, though, the performance was not on par with my expectations of what a 12 dB antenna should achieve, although I did see a slight distance/coverage increase compared to the 6 dB antenna This led me to believe this so-called 12 dB antenna was in fact more akin to an 8 dB antenna. Testing our tried and trusted 11 dB antenna, however, increased coverage all the way to Krugersdorp and Pretoria (again, that’s from Benoni) and to date this is the antenna I am continuing to run.

My main conclusion from the antenna testing is that the best antenna certainly does make a difference to coverage and to resultant earnings, and there is a lot of rubbish out there, which one needs to be wary of.

Show me the money!

My final point of analysis concerns the rate of exchange. Before investing in Helium mining, one needs to understand that it is not a quick-cash strategy. There are multiple factors at play when it comes to this sort of investment, and the golden rule of crypto investment which one hears time and time again is “Only invest what you can afford to lose.”

Initially, when I started this journey, the exchange rate between Helium and the US Dollar, and taking into account the exchange rate between the Dollar and the South African Rand (ZAR), was HNT1,00 = R21,00. During March the rate rose to HNT1,00 = R27,00.

The application on one’s phone, and the associated secure wallet, can display your earnings in ZAR, which is what most people will do. In order to convert, the app then also makes use of the prevailing US Dollar to ZAR exchange rate, and this is where it gets a bit complicated. At the start of March, that rate was approximately $1,00 = R16,00 and later in the month this ‘improved’ to $1,00 = R14,50. However, this is not actually an improvement for Helium mining, and for viewing one’s earnings in ZAR. As the Rand strengthens, so the ZAR value of your HNT will decrease.

Adding to this risk was the cryptocurrency carnage seen across the board during May – the prevailing HNT to US$ rate is (at the time of writing) below HNT1,00 = $10,00, down from the high I saw of HNT1,00 = $27,00. Your device mines in HNT, your wallet is represented in HNT, and the ZAR value is dependent on the two rates of exchange. By way of example: in March during my peak, HNT10 = $270 = R4320. In May, at the time of writing, HNT10 = $100 = R1600.

This has the effect of deterring potential investors, because the period for getting a return on your investment (which comprises the costs of the Helium mining device, antenna, cables and ancillaries) suddenly moves from, say, three-four months, to 10-12 months. This will not necessarily deter those in the mining community who follow the “invest what you can afford to lose” principle, but any fickle members who are looking for a quick-cash strategy will be put off.

Closing thoughts

In conclusion, if you want to get into this sort of crypto mining, I would say it is really easy to get into, but you need to be aware of the exchange rates and you need to have a solid and stable Internet network. With the unfortunate reality of load shedding in our country, one also needs to invest in UPS devices for your Internet router as well as for your Helium miner. If you are using an LTE router, all this may still be in vain if the service provider’s towers in your area go offline during load shedding, so also give due consideration to your choice of service provider.

And my answer to the obvious questions – how much can one earn per day and is it worth it? This is tough to answer. My experience since March is that one device with a good antenna can earn up to R150 per day quite easily when the exchange rates are favourable, while peak earnings using exactly the same setup might be as low as R30 per day when they are unfavourable. On bad days, expect to see R2 in earnings, and expect lots of days where it is anything in between. If you, like me, switch off the Rand value indication and concentrate on the Helium earnings, expect 2-5 HNT per month.

So, is it worth it? Well, we have all heard stories of people investing early in things like Bitcoin and walking away wealthy over a short period of time; I happen to know someone who went from an R8000 investment to an R800 000 payout in no time… so I guess only time will tell if it is a worthwhile investment.

My opinion is that Helium poses a solid business proposition in principle – it is encouraging Internet of Things build-out and enabling communication, and one thing any engineer will tell you is that every technological advance follows behind communications upgrades. Ultimately, though, only time will tell if Helium mining is a good investment or not, as it falls into the broader ‘Regulation of Crypto’ discussion which is certainly a huge risk as well.

At the end of the day, I am personally enjoying this journey. It is not without its challenges, but it is also not without reward. As stated, I do not look at my Helium wallet in ZAR or US Dollars, I only look at the Helium value so as to exclude exchange rate variability. My objective was foremost to understand the topology, the earnings and the effects of different hardware.

It has been a very steep and enjoyable learning curve. The frustrations I went through when trying to bring a mining device onto the Helium network (through our secure office environment) is something I viewed as a necessary evil, as I would rather have gone through that and be able to better assist customers, than remain ignorant of the challenges one might face.

Secondly, having been the only South African out of 25 000 deployed devices to have been cloned has also given me a good level of understanding in terms of what can go wrong. Better that it happens to me – someone from a tertiary engineering background with the wherewithal to conduct proper testing, and trying to understand the network in order to be able to provide customers with support – than to one of our clients.


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