Information studies students help build new wireless network to learn about blockchain

When Kailoni Montgomery enrolled in Matt Friedel’s survey class on digital technologies, she only had a vague idea of what blockchain was.

“I just associated blockchain with cryptocurrency,” said Montgomery, an undergraduate in information studies. “And I didn’t know anything about wireless networks across large areas.”

Now, she’s seeing new possibilities for blockchain besides the exchange of digital money, she said, including an idea of her own.

Blockchain is a shared permanent ledger that allows users to process transactions and track assets in a business network. It stores the data securely, and each of the continuous list of records has a timestamp.

Montgomery and two of her classmates are giving hands-on assistance to a new wireless company that is establishing a nationwide network from scratch.

“The goal here is to show students how the company is using blockchain to bring down the cost of cellular services,” Friedel said. “I wanted to teach my class that there are other practical applications for blockchain – even if the cryptocurrency industry falters.”

A novel model

Hexagon Wireless gave each of the participating students a radio device that acts like a cell phone tower to a local area, such as a neighborhood. Once installed, the device, about the size of a toaster, emits radio signals needed to tap into the wireless network.

As the students go about their daily routines armed with their cell phones, they are validating whether they are able to pick up the radio signals from their devices. This is a necessary step for the company in building its wireless coverage map, using a blockchain platform, said Russ From, Hexagon’s vice president of deployment.

As part of the effort, the company is using college students across the country to help them verify and grow the coverage map. Montgomery signed on, along with graduate students Morgan Hays and Gabriel Josko.

FTC opens market

Hexagon is the deployment partner of the cellular service provider Pollen Mobile, which is planning its commercial launch around the first of the year.

Hexagon and Pollen Mobile got their chance to join the market in 2020, after the FCC increased the available radio frequencies on the wireless spectrum, making room for new carriers. A blockchain platform will give them a financial edge in a highly competitive market, From said.

A difference between Hexagon and telecommunications giants is the efficiency and speed that comes from a blockchain platform, he said. “We can deploy cell sites way faster because of it,” he said. “We can do two sites a day as opposed to it taking months. That means we do it at a fraction of the cost.”

NFTs play a role

Working with Hexagon also is giving the three students experience using another emerging staple of digital life: non-fungible tokens, or NFTs.

Mostly associated with internet art and collectibles, NFTs, like blockchain technologies, have other potential uses, Friedel said. NFTs can be both a digital asset and a certificate that authenticates ownership of a unique digital product that can be also tied to a physical good such as a radio device.

The associated NFT can provide the owners royalties for certain activities, like verification of cell coverage, he said.

Each of the devices Hexagon has given to the students has an NFT connected with it. Their individual NFTs give the students access to Hexagon’s wireless service for free, but also to their own digital wallets. Each time their cell phones pick up the device’s signal, the students are rewarded with a small amount of cryptocurrency.

“I wanted to get involved to get a better understanding of how blockchain and NFTs work in the real world,” Josko said. “It’s also a way to understand cryptocurrency, and if I could make a few dollars along the way, all the better.”

Interested in ethical questions

Hays, a graduate student in library and information science, wants to learn by actually using the technology, but she’s also curious about the bigger picture. “I’m interested in the ethical questions of new technology, including the gray areas,” Hays said. “So this project gives me some insight on that. Plus, I wanted more exposure to technologies I might encounter in the job market.”

Montgomery said she was most attracted by the potential of using the new technology for the public good. Now, with help from the Lubar Entrepreneurship Center, she’s working on a concept that would give people in need an alternative to panhandling.

“My hope is to create a system that would allow homelessness people a stronger probability of having enough money for food, necessities and resources for a job search.”

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