A new mobile data network — accompanied by the quinfecta of a website, Medium post, white paper, dedicated subreddit and Discord channel — quietly launched late Tuesday evening in San Francisco, promising a new way to exchange data anonymously and at high speeds without relying on legacy carriers, and at a cheaper price. The peer-to-peer open source wireless network called Pollen Mobile will incentivize its users with cryptocurrency to run their own mini cell towers and build out the network’s coverage in the Bay Area where the service is initially launching.
Anthony Levandowski’s autonomous vehicle technology startup Pronto AI is launching the project. Levandowski, a polarizing, early pioneer in the autonomous vehicle industry, was pardoned last year by former President Donald Trump after being sentenced to 18 months in prison on one count of stealing trade secrets.
Why is an autonomous vehicle startup creating a decentralized telecom incentivized by cryptocurrency? The catalyst of Pollen Mobile stemmed from Pronto’s need for reliable, affordable mobile connectivity for its autonomous vehicles, Levandowski, who is still CEO of Pronto, told TechCrunch in a text message conversation. Pronto has been using Pollen internally for its AVs for months.
“The reason why is simple, we needed reliable, affordable mobile connectivity for our AVs and we couldn’t find it,” he wrote. “So we built our own and realized it could be something others want.” He added later: “Necessity is the mother of invention.”
The distributed Pollen Mobile network, which plans to begin its initial launch in the coming days, relies on a network of data transmitters it somewhat oddly calls flowers, bumblebees and hummingbirds — code for radio towers, connectivity validation devices and mobile phones.
An FCC rule change in 2020 allowed the company to build its own cell towers and create mini-mobile networks for the sites where its autonomous vehicles operate, according to its post on Medium.
“We got to thinking about all the other things that people don’t like about existing mobile companies. We saw an opportunity to build something truly revolutionary — something that tackles what we see as the “Four Horsemen” of mobile networks,” the Medium blog post states. These “Four Horsemen” are a lack of privacy and anonymity, poor coverage, high costs and no user voice.”
Small cell towers called “flowers,” which range from the size of a pizza box to up to six feet tall, provide coverage of between a few blocks up to one mile. These flowers are installed by “flower owners” in their homes or offices and connect to the internet and provide coverage to other Pollen users. Flower operators earn PollenCoin (PCN) from the community of users depending on the coverage area, service quality and amount of data transmitted, according to information the company posted on its Discord channel.
Operators pay the upfront cost for the physical data transmitter hardware; the cheapest (and smallest) flower costs $999 while the largest and most powerful transmitter costs more than $10,000. Justifying the high upfront cost means operators taking a leap of faith that the network will succeed and the value of PCN’s fixed supply will increase.
One of the many open questions for the nascent endeavor is how or if ISPs will respond — the distributed network will be piggybacking onto flower operators’ home internet and will be channeling peer-to-peer data through those networks.
The network currently has more than a dozen radio towers operating in the Bay Area, according to the company’s network tracker.
Pollen Mobile will ship smaller devices called “bumblebees” that collect data about the strength of the network’s coverage. These devices, which validate “flower” coverage, are also owned by users and can be placed in their car, drone or bike. Bumblebee owners also earn PCN based on the number of unique coverage validations provided each day.
Finally, there are the “hummingbirds,” which are the mobile devices that use the Pollen network. Phones will require an eSIM download to connect to the network, and other devices like laptops can connect via a special adapter (called “Wings”), the company said. Users pay for connectivity using PCN.
Eventually building out a network of users willing to pay for a data network in its earliest stages will depend on selling the vision of a more anonymous mobile network which doesn’t sell or log customer data. The data-only network also won’t allow for phone calls or SMS messages, and users paying for the service won’t get a phone number.
Pollen has so far been operated internally by Pronto as a subsidiary. Levandowski said it will be turned over to a decentralized autonomous organization, or eDAO, and run independently from there. The organization will eventually govern how the network evolves and dictate how and where users are incentivized to build out coverage.
“We’re not controlling where flowers go,” Levandowksi told TechCrunch. “We designed the network so that the community and market forces will determine where rewards flow.”