The possible role of blockchain in network infrastructure
Realizing the full potential of 5G requires confidence in the security, resilience and performance of its underlying infrastructure. The UK government’s decision to ban Huawei from UK 5G networks highlighted the current resilience risk of having few suppliers for critical network equipment and infrastructure. Addressing this requires a comprehensive strategy to drive innovation for new and existing suppliers, open-interface solutions, and diverse interoperable supply chains from the ground up.
Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) are applying disaggregated network models to facilitate 5G deployment by reducing total cost of ownership. Network disaggregation involves breaking down traditionally “bundled” vendor-supplied network components into smaller, more efficiently provisioned components, including using software-defined configurations. Improved competition among hardware vendors, innovation and interoperability promise more efficient and flexible, and therefore cheaper, network deployment and better coverage. MNOs can then focus on making more efficient use of what exists.
A version of this is already happening with a very different type of network operator: completely decentralized (not just disaggregated) wireless networks comprising peer-to-peer individuals hosting small, compatible cells that earn cryptocurrency rewards. for “coverage proof” and carry data packets.
While the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee is told that blockchain “innovations” too often seem to offer solutions to problems that don’t need to be solved, this new application of decentralization to digital infrastructure could be a substantial use case for blockchain that is not finance or digital asset trading.
BYO base stations
Decentralized wireless networks are operational today. Hosts provide their own compatible antennas, broadband connection, and earn cryptocurrency rewards for providing coverage and data. Clients pay for data transmitted over the network through their connected devices using cryptocurrency, which features in the reward of the hosts responsible for transmitting those data packets. Pollen’s network which focuses on LTE and Helium’s network which supports LoRaWAN for Internet of Things (IoT) devices in the UK are examples of decentralized networks in operation.
This potentially offers an alternative solution to the last mile problem where new infrastructure is prohibitively expensive, such as new 5G cell sites in urban environments. Decentralized networks address the risk of resilience by involving multi-vendor interoperable antennas combined with a crypto-miner that can use any broadband connection (fixed or wireless) for backhaul. The use of a blockchain ensures transparency, security and reliability. Hosts mine crypto through “proof of cover” to concretely support the propagation of a working network, rather than for proof of work or proof of stake.
So why hasn’t this already happened everywhere?
By removing centralized infrastructure from the equation, the model raises several legal, regulatory, and business challenges.
GCE Compliance: Providers of electronic communications networks (ECN) and electronic communications services (ECS) in the UK must comply with the General Terms and Conditions (EGC). GCE compliance is cumbersome, difficult to maintain, or simply impossible on a decentralized basis.
Use of retail broadband services for wireless backhaul: Retail ISPs may prohibit their customers from using residential broadband service to provide backhaul for a third-party network, such as a decentralized wireless network. Doing so could cause customers to violate their ISP’s terms of service or fair use policies. ISP policies may require customers to opt for more expensive professional services for this purpose.
Privacy, security and resilience: Networks, including those serving IoT devices, must be very robust, resilient and meet minimum security requirements. This is much more difficult for a decentralized network involving multiple hardware vendors, a multitude of hosts, and greatly reduced centralized control functions. Proposed IoT cybersecurity rules in the UK underscore regulatory concerns about protecting consumer IoT devices from hackers.
Lawful interception: Encryption and aggregation applied to network traffic traversing decentralized networks means that hosts are unable to identify individual data packets. Such networks would still need to maintain the ability to comply with lawful interception requirements.
Spectrum: Decentralized networks currently rely on the use of license-exempt spectrum. In the UK, spectrum for the LTE and 5G frequency bands is subject to expensive and exclusive licenses held by MNOs. Spectrum availability will therefore have a significant impact on the potential functionality of the decentralized wireless network.
Disaggregated network architecture is already revolutionizing the way mobile network operators operate, fundamentally changing the way resources are deployed, applying technology to achieve efficiencies, and encouraging vendor collaboration to achieve interoperability. Decentralized networks are a step closer to truly liquid network functionality, but require greater coordination and there are management and oversight challenges to overcome. Given how other industries are embracing blockchain technology and decentralization, it’s easy to envision these networks gaining popularity in the UK.
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