SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.
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ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, HOST:
A few months ago, we were in the middle of a crypto frenzy - not the first time. Millions of people had just watched the Super Bowl where several crypto companies ran big ads. People were calling it the Crypto Bowl. And all of these celebrities were hyping it up from LeBron James to Larry David.
AMANDA ARONCZYK, HOST:
And in the middle of all that froth, we got an email from a listener named Mark Masih, who lives in Philadelphia.
MARK MASIH: So I am a realtor and a investor, got my license when I was 18.
ARONCZYK: And are you pretty good at it?
MASIH: You know, I'd like to think so.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Mark was writing to us because he was just about to put a house on the market, a property he bought to flip. And unlike other houses he sold, this one would come with something unique, of the moment - a cryptocurrency miner built into the house. You know, like, a device that generates new crypto that could then be exchanged for actual cash. And he's made this cryptocurrency miner sort of like cabinets or countertops, a permanent fixture.
MASIH: This will be the first crypto fixture ever being sold in the world.
ARONCZYK: Mark, how do you know that this is the first time ever? I cannot fact check that 100%.
MASIH: I can't either. But I'm going to say it until someone else proves me wrong.
MASIH: And then I will gracefully say, OK, I guess I was No. 2. But until then, I'm going to go ahead and claim it.
ARONCZYK: Now, I might have ignored this as, like, just another crypto gimmick. I don't know - maybe this guy was trying to get his listing on Zillow Gone Wild.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Wait, I can't tell if you're joking.
ARONCZYK: No, that is a real account. That's an Instagram account. But even if that was true, there was something about this idea that was intriguing.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: This was a place where the hard-to-pin-down digital world of crypto would meet the real, physical world - inside a house with a classic Philly porch, laminate floors, quartz countertops, going for $240,000.
ARONCZYK: Mark was pitching this whole thing as an investment within an investment. So we thought if we went to this open house, we might find all kinds of people wrestling with this question - what is crypto actually good for? We figured at the open house, there'd be crypto true believers mingling with newbies, mingling with skeptical Philadelphians.
MASIH: Philly has a very - what's the word where they don't trust people? - like, distrustful nature. So that the average buyer is going to come in and say, why? Why'd you do this? I don't get it. What's going on here? How are you scamming me? How am I getting got?
ARONCZYK: How am I getting got? - is another question swirling around crypto these days. Because from the time Mark was finishing up the house to today, the laminate floor has fallen out of the crypto market. It's lost $2 trillion, two-thirds of its peak value, turning us all into skeptical Philadelphians. Hello and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Amanda Aronczyk.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And I'm Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi. Right now, we are in the middle of a crypto meltdown - cryptocurrencies losing value, people losing their savings to the crash or to scams. It can be hard to separate the fake from the real.
ARONCZYK: Today on the show, we visit the crypto house, a house that promises to generate its own cryptocurrency and maybe make a difference in the real, non-crypto world.
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HOROWITZ-GHAZI: About a month later, Mark organizes an open house. And when we get there, Mark is doing all the normal things real estate agents do to get set up.
MASIH: So I had to vacuum, got some food.
ARONCZYK: He bought some fancy-looking lemon poppyseed and buttercream doughnuts.
MASIH: Yeah, they're, like, cake doughnuts.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: The place is staged in grays and white with large pieces of abstract art on the walls. There's a vase by the door with two tastefully dehydrated flowers in it, a scented candle burning.
ARONCZYK: What flavor is that?
MASIH: So I just picked a nice-looking one that I had in the house.
ARONCZYK: Smells like market volatility.
MASIH: Sea salt, vanilla.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: He's also done some staging for the crypto curious, set up a framed QR code that sends you to some information online.
MASIH: So I put together an FAQ for, like, crypto-related stuff.
ARONCZYK: While he's showing us around the house, some people start to arrive.
MASIH: Hey, how are you guys?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Doing good. How are you?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hey.
MASIH: I'm Mark. I'm the listing agent.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: A lot of people start asking the kinds of questions you'd expect from a prospective home buyer - about the heating system, the new windows. But you can tell there's one thing that Mark really wants to talk about.
MASIH: You guys are familiar with, like, the crypto thing that I set up?
ASIA HIGHTOWER: No, no, no.
MASIH: So I set up a crypto miner in the house.
HIGHTOWER: Oh, did you?
ARONCZYK: This is really the moment I've been waiting for, seeing the crypto miner, because what I'm picturing is a room filled with noisy servers sucking up tons of electricity. Because these days, that's what it takes to mine the two biggest coins - Bitcoin and Ethereum. Last year, Bitcoin used about as much electricity as Argentina.
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ARONCZYK: We walk upstairs to the master bedroom. Mark points us to the closet, and we stand in an awkward circle, peering inside.
MASIH: Here's the miner.
ARONCZYK: OK. Oh, it doesn't look like what I expected. It's a little box of maybe - I don't know - four inches by three inches.
MASIH: Something like that, yeah.
ARONCZYK: It's plugged in. It's pretty discreet.
This is not what I was expecting. The crypto miner looks like a little hard drive sitting on a shelf. It's using about five watts of power - less than an LED bulb. And Mark explains that this thing that he has built into the house is called a Helium miner, which has nothing to do with helium the element. It's just the name of the cryptocurrency that this miner's generating.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: It also doesn't really have anything to do with mining either. Mining is just a metaphor when it comes to crypto. Basically, what that means is that there's a computer doing some sort of processing work to help the whole system run.
ARONCZYK: Mark says that in the case of Helium, the computer is that box in the closet. And the work that it's doing is essentially it is a hotspot. It takes the house's Wi-Fi signal and shares it through an antenna to be picked up by all kinds of little smart devices within a few miles' range of the house - things like internet-enabled dog trackers or electric scooters or water sensors for flooding - all the stuff that makes up what people sometimes call the Internet of Things.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: In return for that work of sharing signal, the little computer earns some Helium - a cryptocurrency that you can then exchange for real dollars.
MASIH: So it made $2.81 yesterday. And so if it does that every day for the rest of the month, it'll make $84 in a month.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Not terrible. Plus, the whole thing isn't that energy intensive. It doesn't have to be.
ARONCZYK: That was the thing I learned at the crypto house. Not all crypto mining is the same. Some mining takes a ton of energy. Some doesn't. Sometimes crypto mining is all about the creation and maintenance of a currency. And sometimes the crypto miners just like performing some entirely other task, like the Helium miner that Mark installed in the closet, which he is now showing to a potential buyer, a woman named Asia Hightower.
MASIH: If you end up buying the house, I'll transfer ownership, and so those payments will start coming to you directly.
HIGHTOWER: But right now they come to you.
MASIH: Yeah. Right now they're mine - still my house.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Asia has not seen this kind of miner before, but she's already got some experience with crypto. During the pandemic, she bought a few hundred dollars' worth of cryptocurrencies with her stimulus check. She pulls up her Coinbase account to show us.
HIGHTOWER: I have Bitcoin and...
HIGHTOWER: ...Ethereum and Shiba, and they're sucking right now. Every last one of them dropped.
MASIH: Yeah, market's down bad right now.
ARONCZYK: Which is not ideal for Mark's pitch. On the day of the open house, the cryptocurrency market was losing value and had been for a few months. The Helium coin, the one the crypto miner is generating - that was down, too.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: It felt like we've been watching a bubble deflate, and we were also seeing some crypto companies totally evaporate. And some of that is definitely fraud. According to the Federal Trade Commission, 46,000 Americans lost at least $1,000,000,000 to scammy crypto schemes since the start of 2021.
ARONCZYK: When people say to you, like, oh my God, crypto - it's just a scammy scammy coin - does it put your back up, or how do you respond to the scam coin stuff?
I called up Frank Mong. He's the COO Of Nova Labs. They're the ones who launched Helium - the token that's being mined in the crypto house.
FRANK MONG: Yeah. It's annoying and agitating. But at the same time, I feel like every time there's new tech, there's going to be this flood of scammers that come in to try to, you know, take advantage of that.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Frank says, unfortunately, scams are part of the cycle of a new technology. Like, remember when we all got email?
MONG: How many email scams have we seen? Holy cow. And then even the telephone - we still get telephone scams. It's endless. This is no different. In the crypto world, it's the same thing.
ARONCZYK: He says that with the collapse of crypto and Ponzi schemes driving the narrative, it's easy to forget that crypto encompasses not just the nearly 20,000 speculative coins - meme coins, stable coins - it's also a technology. And for Frank's company - that technology was a way to solve a totally different problem.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Which brings us to the story of how this cryptocurrency called Helium made its way into the closet at the crypto house in the first place. It's a winding tale - starts about 10 years ago when the two guys who founded the company were out doing one of their favorite pastimes - flying drones - you know, Bay Area stuff. So one of the drones flies a little far away behind some trees, too far from the controller.
ARONCZYK: This has totally happened to me, and you end up spending, like, hours trying to find your drone.
MONG: When the drone disconnects from your control, it's gone. Like, it's gone. Where did it go? I don't know. Well, hey, let's find it - like, you know, a simple problem, but yet critical problem. And all you need is a simple solution. The drone should connect to the internet on its own, right?
MONG: Well, it can't.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: If you have a device that needs a little bit of internet like that drone, there are three main ways to connect - Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and cell service. Cell service - that would be super expensive. If you're outside, tough to get Wi-Fi. And Bluetooth has limited range.
ARONCZYK: So Frank says that the friends with drones, they decide, let's build a network for these kinds of things, a network to serve devices that don't actually need, like, a lot of internet. They just need, like, a little bit. But then they quickly figure out that that is really hard to do.
MONG: We clearly cannot build our own network. It's almost impossible for, like, AT&T to build their own network. It's so expensive. It's, like, literally billions of dollars over decades. And so we thought, well, how do we do that?
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Right. Even AT&T, with all their money, can't just snap their fingers and make a network. So how's this little company with a dozen engineers and a little startup funding going to do it?
ARONCZYK: So they're like, what if we just figure out a way to extend the network that the AT&Ts of the world have already built? Maybe we could get people to share, like, a little of their Wi-Fi using an antenna to spread the signal.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: They try a bunch of things to convince people to install these signal sharing kits they come up with. They tried selling them - doesn't work. They tried giving them away. Like, put this thing in your house and you'll be part of a people-powered network. But people quickly lose interest. It becomes clear they're not going to be able to build a network of millions of people spanning the entire globe this way.
ARONCZYK: By 2017, things were looking a little rough, like the company might go broke. So in their hour of darkness, they turn to - what else? - bottle of fancy scotch.
MONG: Kudos to our engineers and the team. You know, instead of giving up, they decide to open up a bottle of Oban 14 and started drinking.
MONG: And really, really...
ARONCZYK: They were like, this is the best solution we got at this point?
MONG: Well, I think it was just to brainstorm and say, hey, look, let's just step back for a second and stop beating our heads in the ground. And then this, like, crypto showed up.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: 2017 was another one of these crypto boom moments. Frank says even his own mom called him up, asking him, Frank, Frank, where can I buy some crypto? It is everywhere. The company can't hide from it.
MONG: You know, and so we started talking about, what if we could use crypto as a means to incentivize the creation of a network?
ARONCZYK: Maybe that's the way to convince someone to put one of these hot spots in their home. Tell them, this isn't just a hot spot. It's also a device that mines crypto.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Mom, here's a way for you to get crypto. Put this box in your closet.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Essentially, they're going to pay people. When the people share their signal, they'll earn a little bit of this new currency, Helium. And it begins to take off.
ARONCZYK: To prove this point, Frank shows me a map covered in dots that represent hot spots all around the world.
MONG: So each hot spot has a unique name. And so the last hot spot that's onboarded is somewhere in Germany - Unna, Germany. And its hot spot name is attractive hemp buffalo.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: The goofy phrases come from this random word generator they use to name every hot spot. So there's bumpy pickle finch in Turkey and shambolic felt scallop in Denmark - a personal favorite. As of today, there are 900,000 of these hot spots around the world and counting, including one in a house that's for sale in Philly.
ARONCZYK: There's now a handful of companies like Helium that are using crypto as an incentive to perform a task that relies on building a widespread network.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: There's a company called Filecoin, which is where Helium got their idea. Filecoin is a network for storing digital files. Another company, Hivemapper, incentivizes buying a little dashcam for your car, and it uses location info to create new maps.
ARONCZYK: You guys make this decision to tie your company to crypto...
ARONCZYK: ...You know, which is helpful. But what happens when the market tanks? Like, do you feel like you guys have hitched your wagon to something that's actually super volatile?
MONG: You know, I think because we're so bleeding edge, it's going to be volatile. You're going to have ups and downs.
ARONCZYK: And the Helium coin does go very up and very down. Its value is still largely based on people speculating - like, hey, is this coin worth anything? Should I buy more? Should I dump it? But Frank says that because the coin isn't really the point of the company, they can ignore the ups and downs. He honestly seems more worried about the volatility of being a tech startup.
MONG: The technology that we're building, it's risky, I would just say, by the nature of what we do. We are a startup. You know, we're creating technology that's never existed before. It's going to take time, and it's going to be a lot of risk.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Our real estate agent, Mark, knows that maybe the company will fail and these boxes will become useless. But he's a believer. He owns five Helium miners, not counting the one in the crypto house. He spent almost $7,000 buying and installing them.
ARONCZYK: And he's done all of this because he thinks that Helium is this kind of rare thing - a crypto that serves a clearly functional purpose, isn't just a speculative asset.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Here's looking at you, Dogecoin.
ARONCZYK: Helium lets Mark be an evangelist for all of the stuff that he's really into. And through the crypto house, Mark gets to introduce some lucky homebuyer to crypto at zero cost to them.
MASIH: It's cool to be able to set it up for someone and say, hey, this technology exists. I set it up for you. Go ahead.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: But will the buyer actually want this gift that Mark is offering up? That's coming up after the break.
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HOROWITZ-GHAZI: When Jessica and Brandon Green started looking for a house in Philadelphia, built-in crypto miner was not super high on their list of things they wanted.
JESSICA GREEN: We weren't even going to look at this house. And I was reading the listing, and I saw, like, cryptocurrency down at the bottom, and I just sort of furrowed my brow. I'm like, I don't even know what this is. You know, I almost thought that maybe a spammer had gotten in and somehow corrupted the real estate listing.
ARONCZYK: But, she thought, you know, it's a pretty good location for us. So they decided to go check out the house.
BRANDON GREEN: I was going over it with a fine-tooth comb because I liked it when we first walked in. And yeah, I opened the closet, and I see this thing, and so I'm, like, what in the world is that?
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: He's wondering - is this some kind of security device? He takes a photo of it. Then later that day, when he and Jess are talking about the house, he's like, oh yeah, I should Google the name of that thing in the closet.
GREEN: So I looked it up. I was, like, Jess, do you realize that what - that thing in the closet is a crypto miner? And she's like, what? I'm like, yes. So it mines Helium. And I literally had to look that up because I was like, like the gas?
ARONCZYK: They read more about it, and they were like, sharing the internet. Sure. This thing's already installed. It won't cost us anything. It'll actually make us a little passive income. Plus, it's actually doing something useful in the world.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: But it wasn't much of a factor for actually buying the house. Mostly what they're thinking is, we love the porch and the quartz countertop. Yes, we're going to buy this house.
ARONCZYK: Since they moved in, Jessica says she's only really had one moment of resenting the crypto miner in the closet.
GREEN: When I was sort of unpacking some things and I wanted to put stuff on the shelf and the miner was sitting there - I was like, ooh, you're taking up, like, four shoeboxes' worth of space. I felt that.
ARONCZYK: And at that moment, were you, like, OK, maybe I would rip you out?
GREEN: I can't say it didn't cross my mind.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: But they didn't rip it out. And once they settled in, Mark, the real estate agent came over to transfer the ownership of the miner, and then all the money started rolling to them in the form of Helium tokens, also known as HNT.
ARONCZYK: Do you have the app there? Would you mind opening it and just telling me how much HNT you've earned?
GREEN: Yeah. So that's - it says - so it's my wallet.
ARONCZYK: So how - do you mind reading me the number? How many do you have?
GREEN: So we have 4.22043352 HNT. So we would think that's about 40 bucks.
GREEN: If we were to turn that into U.S. money dollars right now, it would pay three-quarters of the cable bill.
ARONCZYK: So this isn't like F-you money, where you guys can, like, quit your jobs and live off the grid?
GREEN: No, not quite yet. Could it turn into that? Who knows? You know, or could it be worthless tomorrow? I mean, I think both of those things are equally in play at this point in time.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: With all of these spectacular booms and busts in crypto over the last few years, it can be easy to forget that cryptocurrency began as a kind of utopian vision for escaping the financial system as we know it. Right now it's easy to get distracted by all of the hype and the scams and the jargon and forget to ask this kind of fundamental question about whether there's actually any value beneath all the froth.
ARONCZYK: And the crypto house - it's kind of a reminder that hype and real value can sometimes go hand in hand, that a speculative frenzy can power real things in the real world.
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HOROWITZ-GHAZI: If you're looking for a way to show your appreciation for the journalism we do at PLANET MONEY, why not become a member of Planet Money+? It'll help support the show. You can listen ad free, and every other week we'll give you some bonus content exclusive to subscribers. You can subscribe at plus.npr.org/planetmoney. That's plus.npr.org/planetmoney.
ARONCZYK: Today's show was produced by Sam Yellowhorse Kesler. It was engineered by Gilli Moon and edited by Molly Messick. PLANET MONEY'S executive producer is Alex Goldmark.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Special thanks to Brady Dale at Axios for his help and Robert Hackett at Andreessen Horowitz - no relation. I'm Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi.
ARONCZYK: And I'm Amanda Aronczyk. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.
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