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Tired of annoying and unwanted calls: Dial blockchain!

In next ten years, imagine a world where instead of having a national identity or social security number you’re given a worldwide identification number maintained via a blockchain network. A world where billions of connected devices securely communicate using blockchain-based smart contracts. A world where you no longer swipe your credit cards at physical or online stores, but rather make payment via your facial, voice or retinal identification maintained on a blockchain.

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Uses of blockchain technology and telecom use cases

Yes, blockchain promises to be one such technology that will impact and provide immense value to businesses and society just like internet did 20 years ago. Blockchain has been one of the most hyped technologies for last few years, and as per Gartner’s hype cycle for emerging technologies, it was among the top five hyped technologies along with Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence, in 2017. Simply put, blockchains are distributed ledgers that can be securely updated without the need for central intermediaries. That makes them relevant to a whole host of uses, including everything from food safety to digital identity to property records.

During the initial years, blockchain use cases were limited to currency markets, financial services, banks, etc., but now almost every industry vertical (supply chain, manufacturing, logistics and real estate for example) are using blockchain. So, what does blockchain have in store for telecommunications? Well theoretically, many use cases around identity management, fraud management, roaming issues, smart contracts in IoT, etc., are either proposed or in Proof of Concept (PoC) stages by different vendors and operators around the world.

It can’t solve all problems, for sure

With all the hype around blockchain-based solutions, we can’t forget to see the bigger picture. It’s assumed that blockchain can solve all trust/security related problems but that’s not really the case. Take the case of a food consignment shipped from one place to another. Blockchain can be used to verify the transactions while the consignment is in transit, but it can’t do anything where people involved in the supply chain may alter few characteristics of the consignment (for example, faking geo positioning coordinates using numerous MAP APIs, temperatures at which the consignment is stored by altering the air conditioning scale, etc.). So anywhere before a value is inserted in the record, trust can still be compromised. Essentially Blockchain is not really a complete solution but acts as a platform to enhance trust and security.

Also, as with any hyped technology where so many companies and startups are trying to build their products around, such as blockchain, there must be more failures than successes. In fact, Gartner predicted that 90 percent of enterprise blockchain projects are bound to meet premature end within 24 months. Having said that, it’s still powerful enough to drive new use case and business propositions for different industry segments.

Blockchain application development: from Proof of Concept to commercial reality

As mentioned previously, there are plenty of telecom-related use cases where blockchain can be useful. In this blog, I’ll touch upon one of the most recent developments that has happened during last week of May in the Indian telecom space, with the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) issuing a set of regulations to combat unsolicited commercial communications (UCC) or calls using blockchain! Let’s first have a look at the underlying issue and the draft proposal by TRAI.

Indian telecom subscribers have long faced spam or annoying calls from telemarketers, credit card companies, insurance providers, etc., to sell their products or provide them with information about new offerings. On top of this, many fake companies are calling customers to know their details, credentials, PIN numbers, etc, to dupe them of their hard-earned money. To curb this menace, TRAI established a “Do Not Disturb (DND)” registry in 2010 whereby a customer can simply opt out of receiving these types of calls by sending an SMS. The DND registry was a moderate success with around 230 million subscribers opting out of such unsolicited calls. But after few years, even with DND implementation, the problem of UCC was not solved as telemarketers started to obtain subscriber’s consent, often secretively, to move a number in the DND registry to the whitelist.

This is where blockchain comes into the picture: TRAI has proposed a draft of regulation to curb this menace. The important new features of this regulation are:

“Adoption of Distributed Ledger Technology (or blockchain) as the Regulation Technology (RegTech) to enforce regulatory compliance while allowing innovation in the market. Blockchain has proven useful where the objective is to cryptographically secure information and make it available only on need to know basis. Yet none may deny their actions or tamper with records, once recorded on the distributed ledger, which uniformly enforces compliance. Since it’s operator’s responsibility to safeguard subscriber’s data so TRAI has proposed co-regulation to develop the solution that can safeguard interests of all stakeholders e.g., subscribers, operators, regulatory authority, vendors etc.

It appears to be the first instance anywhere in the world to use this technology at such a scale in the telecom sector.”

In weeks to come, TRAI will close this draft by incorporating comments received from various stakeholders. Well, the impact of such regulation will be seen in coming months but it’s certainly a big step for blockchain adoption in telecom. In my opinion, with 5G around the corner and the need for stricter security norms for IoT, blockchain will play a bigger part around security, avoiding third party intermediaries and identity management in telecom.

What’s next for blockchain in telecom

Decentralization is the key to blockchain, which in turn means keeping copies of the same data at multiple places in the network. With time, this data becomes huge and is unsustainable. This creates the need for archiving the data. Several approaches for archiving data are currently being explored by various players in the blockchain ecosystem.

As is often the case with any new technology, blockchain is being developed and implemented at a faster rate than existing regulations and governmental frameworks. Regulatory authorities around the world must enable flexible legal and specification frameworks, such as data protection laws, for faster implementation of technologies such as blockchain in telecom. The impact of such data protection laws like the recently implemented GDPR is still being studied by the key stakeholders in the blockchain ecosystem.

Commercial use cases involving blockchain will certainly find more acceptance in telecom especially in global or local registries having blacklisted SIMs/customer details, roaming records, number portability records, dynamic spectrum allocations for network slicing, etc. Blockchain in telecom is just about to get started, watch this space for more!

Discover what else Ericsson is saying about blockchain on the Ericsson Research Blog.

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