FreedomFi, a software startup that helps enable crowd-sourced small cell deployments incentivized by cryptocurrency, has nabbed $9.5 million in series A funding.

The funding round included backers Blueyard Capital, Qualcomm Ventures and SamsungNext

Funding is going towards speeding up development of FreedomFi software, as well as the company’s aim of inking new partnerships with telecom equipment manufacturers, operators and ecosystem players in the distributed wireless sphere.

On the software front, the new funds mean hiring more engineers to continue to lower the cost of 5G small cell deployments through software automation, according to FreedomFi co-founder Boris Renski.

One aim is to make CBRS small cell deployments cost-effective. Renski told Fierce that FreedomFi’s targeting an eventual “all-in” price of $500 per small cell, inclusive of hardware and installation, with complete plug-and-play automation.

Citing figures from Qualcomm, he said the current industry average all-in price for small cell installation per node is around $28,000 per site. Today, FreedomFi’s product brings down the price to $2,500: $1,000 for a FreedomFi gateway and $1,500 for a small cell.

Last year, the company partnered with the Helium blockchain, which is building a decentralized wireless network, to allow average users to set up base stations and start mining HNT cryptocurrency as compensation for their part in turning on and operating a small cell node and offloading carrier mobile traffic. The initial focus was on LoraWAN protocol for IoT and Helium 5G launched in October. FreedomFi, which has also targeted private wireless networks, launched its first cellular base station that could be deployed by the typical retail consumer without any expertise in wireless.

FreedomFi’s work focuses on using spectrum in the general authorized access (GAA) portion of the shared CBRS band, which the FCC made available without the need for a license – but which comes with stricter power limitations for base stations. Some, like Dish Network, have been pushing the agency to increase those parameters.

“FCC radiation power limits for CBRS are such that unless deploying a CBRS cell is as cheap as plugging in a Wi-Fi AP, the economics simply won’t make sense for operators to use it” when compared to deploying macro cells or using licensed spectrum, Renski said via email. “So the only way to make CBRS useful is to make it really cheap and simple to deploy.”

Dish is the first operator to partner with FreedomFi and Helium on the blockchain effort, and Renski said the company would be looking for similar collaborations with operator partners.

But while FreedomFi built its own hardware, its bread and butter is really software. It creates a hardened and security-patched version of open-source code based on project Magma – an effort backed by the Linux Foundation, Meta and others – which it licenses to hardware vendors.

In January FreedomFi partnered with small cell maker Baicells to certify a line up of products that are plug-and-play compatible with the company’s software, where the radios plug into FreedomFi gateways and equipment is sold to individuals and businesses.

Joey Padden, CTO and co-founder of FreedomFi, said in a statement that “our ultimate goal is to enable other hardware manufacturers and small cell vendors to adopt open source software powering decentralized wireless architecture.”

Aiming to be ‘the Red Hat of distributed wireless’

Marking a stride in that goal, Bobcat Miner, a top maker of Helium hotspots, disclosed on Tuesday it is teaming up with FreedomFi to build new 5G hotspots for mining cryptocurrency by providing cellular and LoRaWAN wireless leveraging the company’s firmware.

The partnership is significant as Bobcat commands more than 30% market share of the Helium ecosystem, with 240,000 hotspots deployed in 12 months.

However, FreedomFi’s ambitions are larger.

The software company would like to become “the Red Hat of distributed wireless” of sorts, according to Renski, “where our hardened version of Magma open source software is used by most manufacturers in this ecosystem.”

In addition to Bobcat, there are 39 more manufacturers in the Helium ecosystem alone, who they’d like to build a FreedomFi gateway equivalent, he said. And there are also new blockchains, such as Pollen Mobile, spearheading the same model as Helium and using the same Magma open source software, Renski added.

Partnering with Bobcat also addresses a major challenge for FreedomFi. Renski explained that the biggest bottleneck for FreedomFi gateways is the ability to source, assemble and ultimately deliver hardware.

“Bobcat knows how to do it much better, faster and likely cheaper than us. We hope that this partnership will enable us to accelerate the production of 5G Helium gateways and also make it more affordable,” he said.

FreedomFi started shipping Helium-compatible 5G gateways in October and orders exceeded supply, halting additions to its waitlist. On the CBRS small cell side the company had a total of 23,000 on order at that time, being built by manufacturers.

The new Bobcat hotspot, called the Bobber 500, is launching in April. FreedomFi will also continue to sell its own gateway. The Bobcat gateway will be plug-and-play compatible with all current and future small cells certified by FreedomFi, including the Baicells portfolio.

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