A Rough Guide to Hotspot Placements by Nik

Helium Network Coverage Map

This post was originally written here by Nik. With his permission we are reposting here because the information is just too good! You can reach out to him for consultation or installation services by starting here.

This is written for folks curious about optimizing a Helium Hotspot placement.

Most start with their antenna, which is (almost completely) the wrong approach for maximizing earnings. The only way you could make a less efficient improvement at the start is to focus on what cables to buy.

There are four fundamental aspects of an optimal Helium hotspot placement; antennas and cables are at the bottom of the list for importance.

Before we get there (relax, it’s only a few paragraphs away), let’s get a few important points out of the way:

First, while I think everyone reading this should buy at least one hotspot and place it as optimally as you can, over the long run you’ll earn far more by figuring out a way to actually use the network and not just provide coverage.

Second, if you follow and read through every link in this article you’ll be ready to make excellent decisions about the best possible hotspot placement. The whole thing (Helium, antennas, optimum hotspot placement) will take about an hour to digest and understand.

Third, if you don’t want or have the time to figure out Helium you can hire me to figure out the best way Helium can work for you.

ASSUMPTIONS

  1. You know that Helium is a network of Hotspots that transmit and receive radio signals, then pass those signals onto the internet. In general, the more signals a given hotspot receives, the more HNT it earns. Hotspots record all transactions on a blockchain and reward owners for providing coverage with HNT, a cryptocurrency token.
  2. You have, or have ordered, or are thinking about ordering, a Helium hotspot.
  3. You haven’t read every last post and thread on the internet about maximizing a hotspot placement. 

There are only a few things that really matter when it comes to your hotspot placement. Some of them will change over time, some of them are fundamental. All are driven by just one goal over the long term:

 

ADD VALUE TO THE NETWORK!

FUNDAMENTALS FOR OPTIMUM PLACEMENT

Basically, the following fundamentals are, in order of importance: 

  • HOTSPOT DENSITY
  • ANTENNA “VIEW”
  • APPROPRIATE ANTENNA
  • MINIMIZED & HIGH QUALITY CONNECTION LENGTH/CABLES

HOTSPOT DENSITY: Optimum density is determined using Uber’s H3 map. The map uses (mostly) hexagons to form grids of different sizes. Each size is called a “resolution” or “res” for short. Each hex size has an appropriate density for its resolution.

Here is a dated interactive map (it stopped being updated in late fall of 2020) of density and hotspot placements. It’s color coded and fairly intuitive. Green means good density, red indicates too dense. Here’s a quick screenshot:

At each “res” there is an optimal number of hotspots per hexagon. That number can change. It is determined by a base rate of hotspots per hex plus the number of hotspots in surrounding hexes. Go ahead, read that sentence again a few times.

Yes, it’s a bit complicated. It was made this way in order to account for density differences between cities, suburbs, and rural areas.

Here’s a screenshot map of San Francisco (pulled from the HIP 17 Visualizer) to give another perspective.

Notice the green hotspots don’t have other hotspot as close to them as the orange and red ones. Red is the worst; they’re basically on top of each other and providing duplicate (or triplicate or worse) coverage, which isn’t useful to the network.

If you want to know if your location will be good, you’ll need to study HIP17.

If you read HIP17 until you understand it, you’ll be in the 1% of Helium Hotspot owners who don’t really have questions about optimum density. 

It looks complicated at first, but it’s actually straightforward. If you’ve ever read about Goldilocks and the 3 Bears, you’ll have an understanding of hotspot density: Not too dense, not dense enough, but just right.

If you don’t have the time or just want to skip that part, you can hire me and I’ll help you pick the best option for your area and circumstance. 

BOTTOM LINE: You need to have optimum density for maximum earnings.

ANTENNA VIEW: Before you go ordering the latest and greatest super-hot antenna (more on that later), make sure your antenna has a view. A “view” has three important aspects.

  • Outside. Walls and even windows will block radio waves.
  • High above other obstacles.
  • Clear view to as much as possible.

The view of your antenna is far more important than upgrading your antenna. A higher elevation “stock” antenna (the one that comes with your hotspot) will outperform a super fancy antenna that’s low down EVERY TIME.

Get as high as reasonably possible. How high? From the American Radio Relay League’s document on antenna placement:

“To a distant receiving station, a transmitting antenna at 120 feet will provide the effect of approximately 8 to 10 times more transmitting power than the same antenna at 35 feet.”

You may be thinking, “I’ll never get my antenna 120′ high.” That’s OK, do the best you can, but know that until you get it high, you’ll be missing out on earnings. 

A good rule of thumb to start approaching 90% of optimum earnings is at least 20′ above your roof and surrounding roofs.

Here’s an example of a good elevation placement:

That antenna is on top of a 23′ pole on top of a 15′ high roof in suburban San Diego.

Anecdotal reports show that even a *1 meter* elevation difference can noticeably affect earnings.

Get as clear a view of as much “civilization” as possible. Remember, the network is only as valuable as the USEFUL area it can cover. A hotspot on top of a mountain with clear views of nothing but nature for 30 miles is not covering (to the network, anyway) USEFUL territory.

A hotspot on a suburban roof surrounded by a few million people and lots of data opportunities will provide far more useful coverage.

Correct elevation is vital for maximum coverage. LoRa is more or less a line-of-sight radio technology. While the radio waves will go through a few things (one wall, or a window, or a leafy tree), for the most part you want to be able to have a direct line of sight to both your coverage area AND other hotspots. 

APPROPRIATE ANTENNA: The antenna is what most people focus on thinking that if they just have the “best” antenna they’ll make the most HNT.

The antenna shipped with any purchased hotspot is already pretty good. However, as many Heliites are both tinkerers and driven by earnings, many will “upgrade” their antenna in order to reach more hotspots.

Antennas do 2 things: They transmit (tx) and they receive (rx). Most folks get wrapped up in how well an antenna transmits, but in the long term that doesn’t matter that much, as the value of Helium is in how well an antenna can RECEIVE.

Remember, the Helium network offers value by being able to receive transmission FROM sensors TO hotspots, then push that information onto the blockchain via an internet connection.

While there is and has been a place for being able to transmit powerfully, that value will diminish rapidly over the coming year.

Most of that is academic as almost no HS owners have the tech chops to fiddle with tx/rx settings, but what IS important is this:

As it stands (Feb 2021) the Helium blockchain, which is what determines whether or not you are participating (witnessing & beaconing) doesn’t have a way to see what kind of antenna you have, and will OFTEN assume that a hotspot with a powerful antenna (over 3 dbi) is somehow cheating the system because the signal that it should be tx/rx is more powerful & clear than a stock antenna will produce.

As many of you who have upgraded your antennas have found out, you can get worse earnings with a higher gain antenna due to this mismatch.

For our purposes, a higher gain antenna is anything over 6 dbi. Above 9 dbi and you’re breaking FCC rules unless you modify the transmit settings, which is beyond the scope of this article.

What the heck is “dBi”? It refers to the focus and shaping of the energy an antenna transmits and receives.

Here’s a quick dbi gain visualizer:

I can hear you now: “Ok dude, but what antenna should I buy?” 

You’ve basically got 3 options. 

First, and recommended: Don’t buy anything, just use the antenna your hotspot came with. Get your density and view squared away first.

Second, if you’ve got a great placement with the right elevation, buy a 5.8 dBi RAK antenna from Parley Labs. 

Third, if you feel like you need something higher gain, get the 8 dBi RAK from Parley.

“But, but, what about the [insert fancy antenna] I read about on the Discord chat? Shouldn’t I get the most powerful antenna possible? I want more money!”

No. Re-read the above piece on having a “too powerful” antenna. 

The one pictured above is a high gain sector (directional) antenna on top of a mountain. It has been adjusted to fall within Helium & FCC regulations. Despite having an enormous “view”, it does worse than many placements that are much closer to other hotspots. Density matters more than antenna.

Even “hot” antennas that are tuned to fit within Helium guidelines (decreased transmit and receive power) won’t radically outperform other antennas.

One Hotspot owner I know ran a Nearson 9 vs a Rak 8 dBi in early 2021 and kept track of earnings between the two. The RAK beat the pants off the Nearson.

MINIMIZED CONNECTIONS: Ok, now we’re coming to stuff that doesn’t really matter but you’ll ask about and geek out on anyway. How should you connect your hotspot to your antenna?

This is RF 101 (Radio Frequency): You want a thick, clean, short (5′ or less) cable that goes from your hotspot to your antenna. I recommend and use LMR400 from USACoax.

If you’re running a cellular backhaul you’ll probably be fine with another LMR variant for the cell antennas (each setup is unique) but you will want to place those cell antennas external to the enclosure.

Get your hotspot up high near your antenna to keep cable runs to the antenna short. Run power and ethernet to the high hotspot, then have a short antenna cable to the antenna. Do not (if you want max earnings) place your hotspot in your attic then run 20′ of LMR to your antenna. That will create more radio power loss than you want. 

So. That’s most of what you need to know about a optimum hotspot placement. 

ADDENDA

What else should you know about when it comes to Helium hotspot earnings?

How much HNT you get per witness/beacon transaction will change as the network develops more fully. With a limited amount of HNT made available (5 million per month until August 2021, when it drops to 2.5 million/month) to reward transactions AND many more hotspots coming online in the next few months, earnings will steadily dilute.

Yeah, but how much can I earn? Check here for a very rough estimate. This can change significantly, so it’s just a starting point.

No matter what, with the growth of the network your HNT earnings will CONTINUE TO DROP.

This MAY be offset by an increase in HNT price. It may not. 

How can I earn even more? The long play with Helium is to figure out how to actually use the service. What kind of data can you collect, what kind of sensors should you use, how can you offer that as a service? 

If you want help with that or with optimizing your hotspot placements, I’m available for hire.

How much power and data do hotspots use? Hotspots use about as much power as an internet router, and as much data as a Netflix user who watches a movie most nights (20–30 GB/month).

If you live in the First World and have a broadband internet connection, having a Helium Hotspot will be basically unnoticeable to you from an energy cost/data use perspective.

I’m ready to buy a hotspot, where should I order? I’d recommend ordering a hotspot from ParleyLabs. They should ship by late spring of 2021, so you’ve got time to think about your “best” location.

Is there a difference in hotspots/miners/radios? Not really. It’s not like you can get a more powerful miner that’ll earn you more. The biggest difference is when they’ll arrive,which is a function of how fast they can be manufactured.

Is it really worth it to put up a Helium hotspot? I sure think so. Will it be for you? If you have an optimal placement and follow all the advice above, probably. This isn’t investment advice. You could lose all the money you put in. 

How much can I make? That’s an easier answer to give. Just go to Sitebot and start poking around to see what the current maximums are. 

How do I turn HNT into cash? Open up an account on Binance.

Is this a safe investment? No. This is cryptocurrency competing with giant telcos (Telecommunications Companies). It may be a boomer (like when Uber competed with cabs or Airbnb competed with hotels) or it may be a flop (like every other startup company that tried to take on the big dogs.)

You should not re-finance your house to put up hotspots. You should be able to lose all the money you put into hotspots without putting yourself, your family, or anyone you know at financial risk. Sheesh. 

Should I just hire you to do all the work for me? Maybe. If you don’t like to read or geek out, or you just want to try Helium without spending a few months researching it, I’ll walk you through the process of setting up the best possible placement for your situation. Go here to get started.

[From Parley Labs: YES! Hire NIK!]

RESOURCES

15 comments

  1. eye fo data

    nik,
    you are appreciated.
    skill on MF,
    des

  2. HeLerner

    Question- is a higher dbi antenna better in a low density environment? I live in Anchorage, if you want to look at our spread. I’m thinking about upgrading to a 5.8 or 8 dbi. One of my miners is optimally placed, I need to work on the placement of the others bc they don’t get witnesses.

    1. suprnrdy

      Hey HeLerner,
      Higher gain is not necessarily better. There’s a lot of factors such as your elevation relative to your surrounding environment, what other objects (buildings, trees, bridges, etc…) might obstruct the RF signal and so on. If the area is relatively flat and all hotspots are more than a few km away, then 8dBi would definitely be an option. Although the first thing you want to do is get the antenna (and gateway if possible) up as high as you can to give you the best coverage. Take a look at this follow up article from Nik that is excellent.

  3. Mandeep Singh Samra (Sam)

    Hi Nik,
    You stated something along the lines of hiring you, I am definitely looking to employ your skills.
    Sam

    1. suprnrdy

      Hey Mandeep!
      Nik allowed us to repost this article, we highly recommend reaching out to him directly. You can find all his information over at his website: https://kyk13.com/helium-consulting/

  4. Dave

    Is there a material that does not block the radio waves? If I have an indoor unit, can I put it in a waterproof plastic box and sit it on my roof?

    1. suprnrdy

      Yes you can put it in an enclosure and put it on your roof. Most people will purchase a separate antenna rated for outdoor usage.

  5. Victte

    Hey Nik,

    awesome review!!!

    Question, when I look into the Helium.place site, my address shows within the red hex, but everywhere I click it just become a red hex. Not sure I follow that logic.?

    So, is it telling me that base of that location ( my address) i should put the Hot spot in the green are of the hex?

    Also, I live in the suburbs. would the hot spot be ok inside my house or do I need to install it on the roof, attic ? are the Hotspot water proof?

    Thanks,

    Victte

  6. daniel

    Hey Nik,

    in regards to the density of multiple hotspots, what would be the best option if you had 2 hotspots. Would setting both up in your house be beneficial?

  7. Terrie

    So, the unit gets left indoors and you buy the antenna for outside. I think I read in the article that there is an optimal distance from the hotspot to the antenna though…I’ll have to try to find that again.

    1. suprnrdy

      You can also put the hotspot outside in an enclosure. If you go beyond 15 feet use LMR-400 or equivalent cable.

  8. Brian G

    Hey please fix the pictures. I would love to see them on this article. I appreciate it

  9. Don Gilbart

    Send me order. Form for sensecap

  10. Thomas Anthony

    Nik,

    Loved the information and the writing style! Very well executed useful info. Thank you.

    The height of the antenna is optimal at 120′. I figured that would be the key consideration. Appreciate you talking through all that. I read and reread several parts.

    Couple questions:
    1. The Bobcat is the only HS currently available. It is an indoor unit. Is placing it outside in an approved enclosure next to the antenna a good idea? Also, it is a dry, hot climate (summer highs in the 115 degree range). Would that heat damage the unit if it was outside?
    2. I have 2 good size trees. Any reason why I couldn’t mount the antenna toward the top in the top of one of them?

    Thanks for you help.

    1. suprnrdy

      I’ll be sure to let Nik know that you liked his article! To answer your questions:

      1) You can absolutely put it in an enclosure, you’ll want to make sure it’s not a dark color to not attract more heat. Most of these units can handle 80C internal temperatures. You might want to remove the casing to allow better circulation. We should be stocking the RAK Outdoor enclosures with the Bobcat mount within the next few weeks. So be sure to check in on our site for that.

      2) You could use the top of the tree to mount your antenna, but it’s best that there is no obstructions around the antenna in any direction or it can have an impact to your signal quality in those blocked sides.

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