In the remote mountain village of Zaarouieh, about an hour’s drive south of Beirut, Ahmed Abu Daher stands on the roof of a half-built house overlooking a wooded valley. He gestures at a drab gray box about the size of a takeout container. A couple of wires emerge from it, snaking off across the bare concrete.
“It’s actually one of the hardest forms of mining,” says Abu Daher, 22, an architecture graduate and operator of a crypto mining pool. “Of course you need decent internet, reliable electricity, but the altitude of the position is really important.”
The box is a Helium hot spot. It transmits a long-range Wi-Fi signal and, in conjunction with hundreds of thousands of other hot spots, forms a global decentralized network designed for the internet of things. In return for installing and running it, Abu Daher receives a cryptocurrency called HNT. Looking over the lush hillsides as the sound of a geriatric diesel engine sputters in the distance, it’s hard to imagine what “things” the little gray box might be communicating with.
Lebanon’s economic free fall over the past few years, combined with a relatively high degree of tech literacy and a culture of hustle, has turned the country into a crucible of sorts for testing the utility of crypto assets. Stablecoin use has boomed as people attempt to circumvent a basket case of a banking system. A community of ingenious miners continues to scrape profits out of the decrepit electricity grid, and some canny speculators have even managed to recover the savings they lost in the collapse of the banking system. Many turned to Helium.
On the Helium Explorer, a dashboard displaying the location and activity of hot spots globally, Lebanon shows as an intense constellation of luminous green dots surrounded by almost-blank space. The Hotspotty app, which shows the state of the Helium network, records approximately 6,500 hot spots installed across Lebanon. In the rest of the Middle East, only the United Arab Emirates comes close to the levels of adoption seen in Lebanon, with around half that number.
Helium’s promise to become the backbone network for smart devices (and delivery of breakfast burritos by drone) has little to do with its appeal in Lebanon. Lebanese citizens, many of them struggling as the country’s economy tanked, simply saw the financial yield from the network’s hot spots as an easy way to make hard currency. But as the value of HNT tokens has fallen, many people have seen their funds depleted and are stuck holding onto a sleek but pretty useless piece of hardware.
In the headquarters of God of Mining, a mining pool on the outskirts of Beirut, CEO Joe Manih sighs as he gestures at 30 or so hot spots of various brands piled on a table. “We just disconnected them last week,” he says. “They weren’t worth the effort, and now we can’t even sell them.”
Helium was founded in 2013 by Shawn Fanning, the cofounder of Napster, and Amir Haleem under the somewhat ominous name of Skynet Phase 1. Initially there was no crypto element to the project and, despite drawing VC investment, it struggled to get off the ground. In 2019 its founders hit on the idea of using blockchain tokenization to incentivize participation in the network. In principle, anybody can purchase a Helium hot spot for $400 to $500, plug it into an internet connection and power source, and become a node. In return, the user receives Helium’s native HNT tokens, which can be traded on the open market.