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Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Blockchain for telecoms and networks: the emergence of ICOs & token-based platforms

There's a new trend I'm currently seeing emerge: ICOs (Initial Coin Offerings) for network/Internet-related businesses and communities. These use blockchain-based "tokens" (or coins) as a way to build decentralised marketplaces, for Internet connectivity or other communications capabilities like phone calls. Most have visions for long-term disruption of existing models, although they tend to start from more humble niches.

ICOs both establish a "currency" for these future markets, and provide funding for organisations responsible for their creation and maintenance. At least five network-related ICOs have been announced already, and more seem likely to follow in due course. (Disclosure: I'm an advisor to one of these five - more details below).

Note: If you've found this post through a link from a mainstream ICO/Bitcoin site or link, a quick introduction: I'm primarily a mobile and telecoms analyst. I study and advise on technology and business-model trends relating to network evolution and communications applications. I cover areas like 5G, IoT-oriented networks, voice & video communications, regulatory policy, the future role of telecom operators, and the impact of "futures" innovations like AI / ML, blockchain and drones on telecoms. Most of my clients are telcos or network equipment/software vendors. I'm not a fintech or blockchain generalist.

Note 2: I am also not an investment advisor of any sort. I'm not making recommendations here.

I've been covering the role of blockchains and distributed ledgers in telecoms and networks for well over a year now. I've spoken at events run by TMForum, IIT, Comptel and others about the telecom-sector use-cases (and complexities), and ran a recent public workshop in London alongside Caroline Gabriel (link). I recently participated in a webinar for Juniper Networks (link) and have a forthcoming white-paper in preparation for Juniper as well.

My general stance is "pragmatic optimism": Blockchain technology has many possible touch-points with the telecoms industry, from data-integrity management to back-office systems to billing - but maturity will take time. Some of the utopian "it'll change the world" and "telcos are obsolete" rhetoric is overblown. Distributed ledgers will have many uses and opportunities in telecoms/networking - but are unlikely to overturn or radically-disrupt industry structures, at least on a 5-10 year view.

Most of the uses I've seen discussed until recently have been around private (permissioned) blockchains, intended to improve processes and security within or between telcos and their suppliers. Another set have been around new services/capabilities to be delivered by telcos - for example, using smart contracts to enforce SLAs (service-level agreements), or for identity-management in IoT networks.

The ICO trend is different - this is about public blockchain-based functions that anyone can participate in - hence the "offering". The idea is to create common, distributed, dynamic ways of storing (and pricing) network-related value - especially for Internet access, but also voice communications and potentially other capabilities. 

Actually, telecoms is lagging here: there's been a much broader rush towards ICOs across many sectors over the past year. This website (link) lists hundreds, while this article from the Economist is a useful intro (link). It should also be acknowledged that they have attracted not-always-favourable attention from financial regulators, as there is limited official oversight and most are launched as "crowdsales" on the back of a white paper and some PR, rather than a regulated prospectus and well-monitored issuance on a specific stock exchange. There are some questionable-quality ICOs and a few dubious individuals involved, it seems. Nevertheless, they are a popular way for blockchain-based initiatives to get funding and early traction - and some will undoubtedly becomes stars, even if others flame-out like supernovae.

In a way, a system for exchanging telecoms capacity or data quotas already exists - it's possible to send prepay account "top-ups" between people or companies today, although those are usually in monetary form (ie PAYG credit), rather than being denominated in minutes or MB. That is unsurprising, given the diversity of different pricing models and network operators - it would be hard for me to gift a GB of data to a friend on a different network, but I can send them a £5 / $5 / €5 credit and let them buy the data themselves. There are also other ways to share network capacity, such as FON's WiFi community.

The various ICOs are attempting to "tokenise" aspects of networks and communications, allowing different models of monetisation, with pricing driven by an external market rather than telcos' / ISPs' internal marketing functions. Some link to an existing cryptocurrency and blockchain like Ethereum, while others are trying to create something new.

The ones I've discovered that are clearly related to telecoms/networks include:
  • DENT Wireless (The website is here & white paper is here): This aims to act as a clearinghouse for mobile data quotas / allocations, between users, between MNOs, or for roaming "local breakout" via visited networks, using its tokens as a common currency. Its ICO, based on Ethereum, was in July. It is aiming to build up enough members as a "buying consortium" to exert pressure on operators to cooperate. It's got some interesting execs and advisors, notably including Rainer Deutschmann who has been instrumental in getting Reliance Jio off the ground in India. One of the use-cases is "donating GB of data to Africa" as a way to improve Internet access in emerging markets. One interesting angle is a tie-up with sponsored-data software company Aquto, which works with AT&T and others. My longterm doubts about the general sponsored-data model continue (the concept of "1-800 apps" is palpable nonsense), but this could be a possible workable use-case. The key differentiator appears to be its willingness (& knowledge) of partnering with operators rather than trying to displace them. Given the wide variations of mobile data pricing (& conditions) by operator, country and tariff - especially postpaid vs prepaid - I'm not sure there's an easy common denominator, though. The inbound roaming scenario may be very tough as well, especially as it may need users to manually select networks, which they may be locked-out from doing on subsidised/customised handsets.
  • AirFox (The website is here & the white paper is here): This platform attempts to draw a link between mobile prepay credits, advertising, user-data and potentially micro-loans in future. It extends the current model of gifting or sending "recharges" to many international mobile operators' prepay customers, by shifting from normal payments to a cryptocurrency bought in a marketplace or earned by viewing ads. The model of "watch these ads and get free calls/credit/data" is not a new one (eg Blyk in the UK between 2007-09), but this is the first decentralised and tokenised one I've seen, linked to a global recharge network. It relies on a customised browser and also a dedicated ad-viewer/recharge app. The browser blocks native ads and replaces them with its own (and can also fingerprint the user by looking at other apps installed). Users can thus earn Ethereum-based "AirTokens" or alternatively they can buy them at market rate, to exchange for prepay credit / recharges. It's not obvious to me how AirFox proposes to "bulk buy" data from operators without wholesale/MVNO deals - in most cases I suspect it'll have to use the usual recharge channels. Its aspiration to "replace the current mobile ecosystem (applications, sites, advertisers, data purchases) with a more efficient new decentralized AirFox mobile ecosystem" seems unrealistic given that most mobile users prefer native apps (or web-pages rendered in apps). Nevertheless, the existing model of sending real ("fiat") money or top-ups seems to work, so there's a basis for an ad-supported model, although its existing stats imply a revenue of 1/17th of a US cent per ad. The ICO / crowdsale launches on August 29th.
  • Ammbr (The website is here & the white paper is here): [Note - I am an advisor - see below]. This is an attempt to blend custom mesh-network silicon and hardware units, with a blockchain and token-based model for identity and a marketplace. While AirFox and DENT focus on sharing credits/quotas for normal personal mobile access, Ammbr wants to share the access network itself, and ultimately encourage build-out of extra coverage and capacity. Its network units (initially WiFi but with other radios in future) support decentralised micropayments, allowing the node owners to earn tokens and essentially act as their own local ISPs with very little friction or setup cost. While these will obviously need backhaul from normal telcos (fixed and/or mobile), once sufficient density is reached, meshes may reduce the total number of wide-area connections needed. An initial use-case is likely to be in developing countries, where micro-loans and other local (and often informal) sharing-model businesses have grown. The hardware-based model is obviously ambitious, but also means future potential to support multiple radios (imagine a CBRS-type shared spectrum or LPWAN module), and could also potentially host distributed edge-computing or NFV capabilities. There are both opportunities and various complexities and possible pitfalls I can imagine, plus there are alternative options for community/rural connectivity (I'm writing a piece on Facebook's Telco Infra Project & OpenCellular for my STL Partners research stream at present [link]). One aspect that's interesting, but which I'm not able to comment on authoritatively, is the unique blockchain model, based on Proof of Elapsed Time / Velocity, which differs from Bitcoin & Ethereum's Proof of Work. In Ammbr is it linked to a custom silicon processor, with claims of much better power consumption than other approaches. The ICO is upcoming in September.
  • EncryptoTel: (Web page is here and white paper is here. This is very different from the other network-type ICOs, as it's more about (business) voice communications than data access. It is a version of an enterprise cloud PBX / UCaaS platform, with encryption, privacy protections and (anonymous) cryptocurrency payments. It allows both on-net VoIP calls (using standard SIP endpoints or dialler apps) and integration with the public phone network, as well as (in future) interconnecting with various messaging applications. It will offer both monthly subscriptions and a pay-as-you-go model. The white paper references video calls, but it does not appear to offer full-fledged UC functions. The roadmap describes a progressive roadmap of development and deployment, with full commercial launch expected in Summer 2018. The ICO occurred in May 2017.
  • Mysterium (Web page is here and white paper is here) is a distributed VPN and data-encryption platform - essentially a higher-performing, blockchain-based version of Tor. It uses an Ethereum-based token system of micropayments. In its earliest phases it retains some central control, with the intention of removing this further down the roadmap. It will compete with commercial VPN products. Its ICO started at the end of May 2017.
[Note: some white papers get updated, so the URL might change with the version number - check the main websites for the latest versions] 

There are also various other ICOs relating to cloud-computing, storage and other related areas, such as Filecoin and Internxt. Another company called Crypviser (link) is developing a secure messaging app and also references secure voice calls in its white paper, although with few details.

So - will any of these, or future, ICOs lead to commercial, scalable networking or communications platforms? It's too early to tell. While the white papers typically given enough "vision" and a tentative roadmap, it's likely that most or all of these projects will encounter challenges and pitfalls, and may end up pivoting as events unfold (and customers'/users' behaviour develops).

One of the risks is that tokenisation itself may limit the possible business and pricing models - for example, how can any of them offer hybrid centralised/decentralised services, if that's what the market seems to want? Can they support sponsored/free models, or allow more granular differentiation? What happens if they contravene other services' T's & C's? How is customer support provided for decentralised capabilities? It is also unlikely that any such proprietary mechanisms or payment instruments will become globally dominant, so there will need to be paths to standardisation - as well as deal with the beady eyes of regulators if they become successful.

Nevertheless, this is an interestingly different direction-of-travel for telecoms/network blockchain, as it sits separately to the main thrust of work around private/permissioned use-cases I'm seeing from some vendors, various operators, bodies like TMForum etc. I still think that some of the back-office applications for blockchain in the telecoms sector have more short-to-medium term opportunity, but it's possible we could see a break-out here by a new entrant of the type discussed in this post. I'll definitely be keeping a watching eye on all of these. 

Please drop me a message at information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com if you want to discuss this more, or want a telecom/blockchain speaker or analyst for an event or workshop.

Footnote on Ammbr: Close contacts may have noticed I recently added an advisory role to my LinkedIn profile, for an organisation called Ammbr, mentioned above. At present, I'm just working on a consultative basis, but unlike most of my other advisory clients, it's not purely "behind the scenes" with execs in private under-NDA workshops, but has a public aspect to it as well. It's got a genuinely interesting combination of technologies (mesh, blockchain, custom silicon, potentially private cellular etc), some talented people, and while that means a lot of moving parts to fit together, there are some intriguing possibilities I'm glad to be able to help refine and prioritise.

Internally, my role is as a telecoms-sector expert and (to nobody's surprise) a general curmudgeon pointing out any risks, technical or commercial "gotchas", competition/substitution threats and anything that seems like wishful thinking. I should point out that this is a small part of my overall activities, I'm not "endorsing" it as such, and my normal
Disruptive Analysis work on all areas of analysis & futurism is continuing. It's also not going to bias my views on other wireless technologies or business models, many of which are more-developed and which I'm also enthused about (eg private cellular). Drop me a message if you want to discuss this further (or want to discuss other consulting or advisory roles).

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