Blockchain heats up across telecom industry, but not every use case is a good fit

While blockchain may have not yet reached the hype levels of AI, cloud and IoT, there's still plenty of mainstream chatter around its use cases.

Before the technology started showing up on TV commercials, CableLabs got a jump on kicking the tires on blockchain four or five years ago, according to CableLabs' Brian Scriber, principal architect for security.

"CableLabs tries to be between three and eight years ahead of the rest of the industry for trying out new technologies, learning what we can about where they fit and where they don't fit," Scriber said. "CableLabs started saying, 'All right, we need to dive into this (blockchain) and really explore a lot of the different use cases and a lot of ideas where cable might be interested in this technology."

Blockchain is a growing list of records, called blocks, that are linked together with cryptography. By design, the data from a blockchain can't be modified. It is an open, digitized, distributed ledger that can record transactions between two parties in an efficient and secure manner. By creating virtual ledgers, enterprises and service providers are able to track and manage information across various parties in a value chain. Blockchain, which was developed for bitcoin, tracks transactions as statements of facts that can be used in a digital economy by businesses, regulators, operators and consumers.

In general, Scriber said the best uses cases for blockchain are around creating ecosystems across various entities. By contrast, a single company doesn't benefit from replacing a data system with blockchain because data systems are much easier to update than blockchains, and most companies already trust their internal divisions.

RELATED: CableLabs tracks down blockchain security threats

In the days before open source blockchain communities, such as the Linux Foundation's Hyperledger, Scriber said CableLabs started with 23 different blockchain-related use cases around distributed ledger topics such as content distribution and traceability.

Out of those 23, CableLabs came up with 10 big architectural considerations for its cable operator members to look at for blockchain. Those considerations included whether there was a need to add blockchain inefficiencies to a process that might have high transaction loads, and whether the blockchain use cases could support an ecosystem.

In the end, CableLabs identified three primary blockchain use cases. One of them is using blockchain to track content distribution for video.

"Using blockchain for content distribution allows you to keep a record of the provenance of any given piece of video content," Scriber said. "You've got folks like YouTube and others that are in this game of working with content creators, but have a really hard time with content theft and proof of original creation. Blockchains can help with some of that provenance if you're a content creator. The content creator can decide when to share this video and whether the folks that are using the video are following the licensing for it. We can even keep track of how and where that content has been used, and make sure that the folks that deserve the credit and potentially the royalties, get that information.

"We also were exploring some of the privacy protection opportunities that blockchain can provide. This one is actually a little bit counterintuitive. This is a path where we're pursuing some intellectual property on. I can't talk about it because we've filed on this, but the idea here is being able to publish to a public blockchain encrypted data, but allow people to have total control over their key and their data and how that data gets distributed. There are some opportunities in that space that we're exploring."

Scriber said CableLabs also was looking at a couple of additional blockchain opportunities that are outside of cable's traditional domains, but he can't speak about them yet.

 "We've found some interesting opportunities where blockchains and a distributed ledger technology really lend themselves to a particular domain," he said.

In general, Blockchain is maturing at a rapid pace.  Worldwide spending on blockchain solutions is forecast to be nearly $2.9 billion in 2019, an increase of 88.7% from the $1.5 billion spent in 2018, according to a report last month by International Data Corporation (IDC.) IDC projects blockchain spending to grow over the 2018-2022 forecast period with a five-year compound annual growth rate of 76% and total spending of $12.4 billion by 2022.

IDC said that a big piece of the global blockchain spending will come from the banking and financial sector. Telenor announced its Telenor Microfinance Bank is using blockchain for a cross-border remittance service between Pakistan and Malaysia.

Orange Business Services has also been active with blockchain technologies, including joining the Blockchain in Transport Alliance (BiTA) last year. Orange has worked with customers to deploy blockchain in a third-party logistics model where its customer required trust in their supply chain partners, whether for securing goods in transit or for tracing and proving delivery, or handling of goods and documents, according to a blog post earlier this month by Orange's Wu Soong Woon.

The Metro Ethernet Forum (MEF) has been actively pursuing blockchain use cases for its service provider and vendor members. At last year's MEF18 conference, Colt Technology Services and Zeetta Networks showed a marketplace blockchain proof-of-concept (PoC) demonstration.

Also at MEF18, CBCcom, PCCW Global, Sparkle and Tata Communications teamed up with Clear Blockchain Technologies and Cataworx to show how telcos can use blockchain to enable services such as bandwidth on demand, IoT, voice, and virtual reality.

Under its MEF 3.0 umbrella, MEF's LSO (Lifecycle Service Orchestration) Sonata APIs will be used for billing and settlement services across multiple operators once Sonata is published in its final form in the upcoming second quarter.

Other MEF blockchain use cases include service assurance for MEF 3.0 services across multiple operators using both LSO Sonata and LSO Interlude APIs; and virtual networking functions (VNF) licensing for service chaining in MEF 3.0 services.

"There's been no formal project announced yet on blockchain, but there's been a lot of discussion and the proof-of-concepts from last year," said MEF's Stan Hubbard, director of communications and research. "We have our members' meeting coming up at the end of the month and we're going to be discussing blockchain there. We'll have more to share on the blockchain front in the coming months."

In December, the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) announced that it had launched an industry specification group for blockchain. ETSI's Industry Specification Group on Permissioned Distributed Ledgers (ISG PDL) is working on providing the foundations to operate distributed ledgers to be deployed across various industries and governmental institutions.