In the remote control In the mountain village of Zaarouieh, about an hour’s drive south of Beirut, Ahmed Abu Vom stands on the roof of a half-built house overlooking a forested valley. He points to a drab gray box the size of a lunch box. A few wires emerge from it and weave across the bare concrete.
“Actually, it’s one of the most difficult forms of mining,” says Abu Vom, 22, an architecture graduate and crypto mining pool operator. “Of course you need decent internet, reliable electricity, but the altitude of the position is really important.”
The box is a helium hotspot. It broadcasts a long-range Wi-Fi signal and, together with hundreds of thousands of other hotspots, forms a global decentralized network designed for the Internet of Things. In exchange for the installation and operation, Abu Vom receives a cryptocurrency called HNT. Looking out over the lush hills and the sound of a geriatric diesel engine stuttering in the distance, it’s hard to imagine what “things” the little gray box could be communicating with.
Lebanon’s economic free fall in recent years, combined with a relatively high level of technical proficiency and a culture of hustle and bustle, has transformed the country into something of a melting pot for testing the usefulness of crypto assets. The use of stablecoins has boomed as people attempt to circumvent a banking system failure. A community of genius miners continues to scrape profits from the decrepit power grid, and some savvy speculators have even managed to reclaim the savings they lost in the banking system collapse. Many turned to helium.
On Helium Explorer, a dashboard showing the location and activity of hot spots around the world, Lebanon shows up as an intense constellation of glowing green dots surrounded by near-empty space. The Hotspotty app, which shows the health of the Helium network, lists around 6,500 hotspots installed across Lebanon. In the rest of the Middle East, only the United Arab Emirates comes close to adopting rates in Lebanon, with about half that number.
Helium’s promise of becoming the backbone network for smart devices (and drone delivery of breakfast burritos) has little to do with its appeal in Lebanon. Lebanese citizens, many of whom were struggling as the country’s economy slowed, simply saw the financial returns from the network’s hotspots as an easy way to earn hard currency. But as the value of HNT tokens has dropped, many people have seen their funds run out and are stuck and holding on to a sleek but fairly useless piece of hardware.
At the headquarters of God of Mining, a mining pool on the outskirts of Beirut, CEO Joe Manih sighs and points to about 30 different-brand hot spots stacked on a table. “We just separated them last week,” he says. “They weren’t worth the hassle and now we can’t even sell them.”
Helium was founded in 2013 by Napster co-founder Shawn Fanning and Amir Haleem under the somewhat ominous name Skynet Phase 1. Initially, the project had no crypto element and despite attracting VC investment, it struggled to get off the ground. In 2019, the founders came up with the idea of using blockchain tokenization to incentivize participation in the network. Basically anyone can buy a helium hotspot for $400-$500, plug it into an internet connection and a power source, and become a node. In return, the user will receive Helium’s native HNT tokens, which can be traded on the open market.