While blockchain has received a lot of coverage recently, the concept is often misunderstood. From a technical perspective, it is nothing more than a data structure which can be used to track interactions between devices on a distributed network. Granted, Bitcoin still is the most successful example of blockchain technology at work. Yet, blockchain is increasingly used to secure medical records, power grids, and even mobile networks.
Per regular Wall Street Journal contributor Chris Skinner, we are in the midst of what he calls the ‘Network Revolution’1 and there is no denying that mobile operators are on the front lines of this movement. However, network security has become an even increasing, and complex, challenge. Whilst news of hackers retrieving credit card details or trying to influence this year’s election have made the news, little was made of a ‘bored teenager’ who recently hacked into T-Mobile’s network.2 With that in mind, here are six ways blockchain can be used to help secure mobile networks.
In 2015, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) identified an approach which would allow blockchain to be used to protect personal data. In the report, it was recommended to use ‘to re-purpose [blockchain] as an access-control moderator, with an off-blockchain storage solution. [In this way,] users are not required to trust any third-party and are always aware of the data that is being collected about them and how it is used.3 If this is the case, the use of blockchain could be viewed as a critical aspect of a risk mitigation strategy for mobile network operators.
Earlier this year, the global telecom consulting firm, Analysys Mason, released a report on blockchain opportunities for mobile network operators. One of the opportunities identified is the use of blockchain to secure internal processes. Blockchain would help to secure Operational Systems Support (OSS) and Business Systems Support (BSS) processes by creating a higher level of security at the edge of private and public networks.
This could be valuable as it would help network operators to offer multiple layers of security for internal, external, and hybrid use. Especially in the coming Internet of Things-centric ecosystem where the sheer number of devices on a given network will explore by a factor of 10, or more.
Prior to the advent of smartphones, frequent travelers would carry world phones which to access a mobile network while visiting a mobile network. A more recent challenge is accidental roaming. This happens when you are near an international border and your phone locks in on the cell signal from a foreign network operator rather than the operator in your home country.
The use of blockchain technology could help operators to simplify subscriber authentication during roaming. Not only would this reduce the risk of unauthorized devices being used on a carrier’s network, but it would also reduce the costs associated with managing device roaming. In addition, such a structure could improve the integration and accuracy of billing systems by reducing errors.
Beyond roaming, blockchain could be used to determine which devices belong on a network at any given time. This could be applied to a slew of services including 4G, public Wi-Fi, payments, and may even become an important part 5G networks.
According the mobile network analysts, the use of blockchain will allow networks to autonomously manage interactions between access points and various devices. This would lower network management costs, and by extension transaction costs, making it possible to secure and enable micropayments amongst other interactions.
In this case, the utilization of public blockchains could be used to help secure citizen services. An example of this approach are the charging stations being tested by the German Utility RWE which allows users to trade green energy credits via the network. Whilst this is just one potential application, it shows the potential of implementing blockchain to support the provision of citizen services in a connected city environment.
Whilst Fintech is all the rage, the emphasis in mobile payments should be on mobile. Let’s face it you can’t use your cellphone for payments without NFC, barcode scanners (a la Starbucks), or a mobile network. The first two are site specific, but the third is nearly ubiquitous. The use of blockchain would be a boon to network operators as well as banks as it would not only reduce transaction costs but also help to make transactions more secure.
As you can see blockchain enabled technologies hold tremendous promise for mobile operators. Given the need to improve network security whilst reducing operating costs, it is highly likely that operators around the world will begin implementing many of the solutions mentioned above in the coming years.
1Source: Techsauce. Blockchain Will “Revolutionize the Network” and Change Our Lives – FinTech Specialist Chris Skinner Delves into Blockchain and What It Means for the Next Generation. 29 July 2016. https://goo.gl/9uWWgF. Retrieved 2 November 2016.
2 Source: Best, S. Daily Mail. A 17-year-old hacker has found a way to get FREE data on his phone using a pre-paid T-mobile SIM. 15 September 2016. https://goo.gl/zB0F2d. Retrieved 2 November 2016.
3 Source: Zyskind, G., Nathan, O., Pentland, S. MIT. Decentralizing Privacy: Using Blockchain to Protect Personal Data. 20 July 2015. https://goo.gl/50JNwh. Retrieved 2 November 2016.
4 Source: Vellasco-Castillo, E. Analysys Mason. Nine Blockchain Opportunities Which Telecom Operators Should Explore. 13 June 2016. https://goo.gl/ReLzfY. Retrieved 2 November 2016.
5 Source: Hirtenstein, A. and Weixin, Z. Bloomberg. Bitcoin Technology Harnessed to Push Electricity Revolution. 12 September 2016. https://goo.gl/B5K6Sc. Retrieved 2 November 2016.