5G technology is one of the most instrumental factors to usher in the fourth industrial revolution– Industry 4.0. The three main use cases of 5G technology are– Enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB), massive machine type communication (mMTC), and ultra-reliable low latency communication (uRLLC). This means that that operators would need to deal with issues such as network reliability and coverage, data integrity, and security, and the need for decentralized architectures (for compute, storage, and security). In addition, the troika of consumers, regulators, and countries are becoming more concerned about data privacy and sovereignty.
The advances in hardware (chip and sensor technology) and software (AI/ML and AR/VR) are enabling factors to usher in the Industry 4.0 revolution. But one of the key technologies that warrant more R&D effort in the telecommunications and networking space is blockchain. We can’t discount the fact that there are obviously challenges to the incorporation of blockchain technology e.g. performance and scalability issues, as well as some of the privacy and security considerations (e.g., 51% attack vulnerability). It is still worthwhile to highlight how blockchain technology can help address some of the challenges mentioned above and some of the long term possibilities.
5G Network Reliability and Coverage
- 5G small cell density requirements (because of their small range 10-100 m) would need operators to have the ability to efficiently manage such ultra-dense networks. Blockchain networks can allow for secure peer-to-peer communication with the base stations in a network or even relay the network performance data to be used for AI algorithms in a self-organizing network (SON) setup to help manage and optimize the radio access networks. Any changes made to the network can be executed as per the smart contracts enabled by blockchain or by a rules engine in SON which was set up while configuring the network or updating the network configuration.
- The future business models based on sharing 5G network resources (e.g., through network slicing or spectrum sharing) will need an establishment of a trusted billing mechanism. Blockchain-based network slice brokers and billing systems in combination with current AI-enabled SON technologies can help navigate such challenges and achieve the closed-loop automation vision.
- Other potential applications might involve user equipment to seamlessly make handoffs with WiFi and 5G connections to achieve the best data connection. In terms of administering such an operation, a group of service providers can establish a consortium blockchain model to establish an interoperable way of authentication and management of such handoffs.
Data Integrity and Security
- Blockchain can serve as a secure repository of data/transactions for various AI algorithms. AI is as good as the data it learns from. The consensus algorithms, immutable nature of transactions stored in the blockchain, and cryptography-based security would help ensure data integrity and security. Blockchain’s use for securely storing and sharing patient data in the healthcare industry is well documented.
- Smart contracts will enable business-oriented applications like billing, which would provide an immutable record of interactions between a user and the network(s). It can even handle automated settlements between different telco networks for network resource sharing.
- Blockchain lends itself well to decentralized architectures due to its distributed nature and peer-to-peer network characteristics. This might be the single biggest reason for many people to believe that blockchain is a harbinger of a new kind of internet which is more user-centric (in comparison to the model today). We don’t have to remember multiple identities (usernames and passwords), and users will have greater control on who they would want to share their information with. People will have just one identifier based on which they can access networks of multiple operators and need not be tied to a single operator. As telcos step out from the core to MEC-centric business models, building a decentralized internet doesn’t seem too much of a distant possibility.
- Public blockchain models can be used for 5G edge computing use cases involving vehicular networks to enable the sharing of vehicular and traffic information. This can serve as a quick and immutable record for paying out motor insurance claims.
- The need for a huge network of IoT devices in settings such as smart cities and UAV fleets to communicate with each other with millisecond latency can be served by blockchain-enabled management and authentication of such devices.
While the technology and its potential use cases are promising, blockchain still needs to solve the scalability issue before it can be optimally applied to telecom networking. The robustness of smart contracts would need to be tested for a scale that until now has not been encountered by platforms like Ethereum. Interoperability amongst different blockchain networks or platforms must be established as well. Blockchain for motor insurance settlement serves as an example where cooperation between a varied set of stakeholders e.g., vehicle manufacturers, insurance companies, operators, networking technology providers, and regulators are needed to realize the use case. This also explains why blockchain use cases have not generated as much excitement in this industry as it has in some others like financial services.
The telecom and networking ecosystem must work with existing blockchain platforms like Ethereum to fast track innovation on algorithms better suited to telecommunication networks. Leaders in the network engineering services like HCL have been investing in building capabilities in AI/ML and blockchain, starting with building CoEs. Mirroring the maturity of these technologies in the industry, AI is increasingly incorporated in majority of solutions/products/services e.g. HCL SON. We have invested in HCL Blockchain Labs to demonstrate enterprise use cases. As we make further progress, leveraging blockchain for networking would be another exciting area to watch for.
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