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Friday, May 19, 2017

Blockchain and the Telecoms Industry: Thoughts from TMForum Live

I’ve just returned from TMForum’s annual conference in Nice. Blockchain / distributed-ledger technologies (and even more so AI, which I’ll cover in another post) figured quite highly.

(I'm expecting this post to be read by some non-telecom people, so a bit of background is likely to be useful here)
TMForum Live is an event traditionally aimed at the IT-facing parts of the telecoms industry. This is usually called BSS and OSS in the vernacular – business and operations support systems, such as billing, ordering, customer service, network & fault management etc. TMF was originally the “telemanagement forum”. The event talks about top-level industry themes (5G is a hot topic, as is IoT) but couches them in terms of “monetisation” and “operationalisation”. It’s necessary back-office stuff, but sometimes a bit dry.

So for outsiders – such as blockchain specialists - looking at the telecom industry, the BSS/OSS sphere is a pretty impenetrable forest of acronyms, legacy software, IT frameworks and solutions to deal with telcos’ sprawling operational and customer-facing needs. It also showcases “catalysts” – joint R&D projects run by consortia of companies, highlighting future possibilities – which are a bit more accessible, with dozens of workgroups exhibiting demos and results of their work.

In recent years, two major trends have led to the event’s character changing significantly:
  • A blurring of the boundaries between IT systems and the telcos’ networks, as virtualisation (NFV – network function virtualisation & SDN – software defined networking) takes hold
  • An increased focus on IT systems to support new customer-facing services, or adjacent areas that telcos hope to find new roles in servicing, such as IoT platforms, content, banking and smart cities. (Yes, the dreaded word “digital” makes frequent appearances)
More mundanely, the event has looked at ways to enhance the bread-and-butter costs and effectiveness of BSS and OSS solutions. Terms such as “customer experience management” and “service assurance” are everywhere, with user-centric improvements to mobile self-care apps, contact centre automation tools, chatbots, better ways to monitor network coverage and so on.

This year, quite a few conference sessions and exhibiting vendors mentioned Blockchain. It definitely wasn’t as high-profile as AI and machine-learning, but it provoked a lot of curiosity. A year ago, few attendees would have heard of it, much less thought it relevant to telecoms. Now, there is an internal working group, a panel session linking Blockchain & IoT, at least one Catalyst project, and a significant number of TMForum’s members who are taking an interest. I spoke at a smaller event TMForum ran in Portugal a few months ago, outlining my thoughts about applications, and had a significant amount of interest.

The main use-cases being discussed for telecoms blockchain included:
  • Device identity & authentication, especially in IoT. There was a Catalyst exhibited (link) which used a Microsoft blockchain to create unique identities for medical sensors (wearable patches), via an Ericsson IoT platform, and also involving AT&T and others. This was also used for data time-stamping and asset management.
  • Smart contracts, both as a possible new "Contract-as-a-service" play for enterprise-facing telcos, but also as a way to offer and manage SLAs (service level agreements) for CSPs' own network services.
  • Mobile banking and micropayments, including for IoT-type use cases such as smart electricity grids. Again, blockchains might be used by telcos to either build complete "vertical" services for end-user, or as Enabler-as-a-Service wholesale/API plays for domain specialists.
I also had private discussions with vendors in Nice that covered a lot of other possible use-cases, including ones around NFV monetisation, fraud prevention, wholesale reconciliation and data-integrity protection. Another one that I've talked about before is use of distributed databases for new shared-spectrum usage and localised private radio networks - and that was independently mentioned by a speaker at another recent conference, the Wireless Broadband Alliance's congress in London.

All of these areas, and others, will be discussed at the Telecoms Blockchain & AI workshop I'm running on May 31st in London. There are still some spaces available - you can sign up here (link) or email me at information AT disruptive-analysis dot com.

My general sense is that development of blockchain applications in telecoms is taking a rather different evolution path to AI. There are some big “framework” plays around telecoms AI, including massive shared “data lakes” relating to customer data, network status and other variables. These can help drive more-reliable operations, better planning and happier customers who are prepared to spend more. Conversely, interest in blockchain and distributed ledgers is (for now) much more dispersed. Individual projects and functions are looking at these as solutions for “point problems” – cheaper registries and databases, ways to secure identity, whether smart contracts could help create enforceable SLAs and so forth.

As such, it’s harder to see telcos developing a centralised, coherent “blockchain strategy” – it’s probably going to be used tactically in very isolated niches, for the next 1-2 years at least. There will be a lot of pilots and prototypes – and each domain will also have a wide range of alternative options to consider. We might see more strategic use in IoT in future, as that seems to be a focus of quite a lot of work. This fragmentation of effort also means that multiple vendors, integrators and blockchain platforms (private, but also potentially public blockchains) are likely to be relevant. As yet, there is no real centralisation of effort for telecom blockchains in the same way there is for banking and healthcare. That may be a next step, beyond the TMForum's own working group.

I'm interested in others' views about this - and it's something that the May 31st public workshop (the first I'm running) should shed further light on. (Workshop details here).


Sami Tayara said...

Hi Dean. Thanks for the insights. Can you give an interesting use case where IoT devices are associated somehow with a Blockchain? I am struggling a bit to have a clear picture for a compelling use case where Blockchain is better than the alternatives. I do not think we should be forcing the use of Blockchain in Telco just because it is cool and applicable in other industries. As Einstein said, if we can't explain it in simple way, then we do not understand it enough... or we are just in brainstorming stage.

Mark Winstanley said...
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Raj Mishra said...
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