As the Number of Sessions Explode at the Edge, Securing 5G Networks Requires New Ways to Scale

Last week, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office announced a new patent detailing how a tech giant intends to leverage blockchain to secure data traversing 5G networks. While this company is not the only telecom technology supplier to pursue ways in which the distributed ledger can contribute to data integrity, their patent is another milestone along the pathway to accelerating 5G – then 6G – adoption supporting edge applications across billions of intelligent edge devices.

It took the patent office less than a year and a half June 2018 to assign the patent for a blockchain platform that can be natively integrated in wireless networks, managing data sessions between machines and humans, at the intersection of Real Time Communications (RTC) and the Internet of Things (IoT). Their new technology appears to be designed to manage part of the data exchanges between a network and a connected device through a blockchain interface.

Not surprisingly, this is tightly coupled with advancements in network slicing, an architecture that runs on virtualized network infrastructure, which is the only technology the world’s largest telecom and networking companies including AT&T, Verizon, Century Link, and their counterparts globally will use going forward. Why? Given the dramatic improvements to economics with multiple, independent virtualized networks running on the same physical infrastructure.

Any large telecom vendor and any large service provider, systems integrator, or OEM who is not seriously studying and investing in blockchain-based, distributed ledger systems will find themselves unable to compete in this hyper-connected world. Regardless of the generation of mobile technology, the pattern is growth upon growth as ultra-broadband delivers reduced latency and higher capacity to make all those billions of connected devices valuable.

Those devices – whether smartphones, sensors, beacons, antennae – powering connected vehicles, buildings, medical devices, delivery systems, and more – will be connecting with each other and with edge and cloud-hosted applications in real-time, all the time. This naturally increases the attack surface, and until we can, as industries, governments, and societies protect what we connect, the economic potential of innovations will be, by extension, limited.

And while the “Big 4” in the US (AT&T Mobility with 162 million subscribers, Verizon Wireless with 119 million, T-Mobile US with 83.1 million and Sprint with 54.5 million) have announced plans to rollout their 5G networks (with steady progress being made), it will be two or three years before we experience consistent 5G networks (we have been there and done that with 4G, and 3G before that.

Without blockchain, service providers will be hard-pressed to manage the exchange of data in an efficient and secure manner, and without addressing the challenges with blockchain-embedded and native approaches, the risk grows exponentially as smaller, less expensive, lower-powered and simply cooler devices are adopted, and connected across existing and new networks.

IoT will drive most of this, according to most analysts, with an Ericsson report estimating that 30 billion, or two-thirds, of connected devices, will be machines.

And while non-fiat, or cryptocurrencies, will continue to grow (in spite of the volatility we’ve seen over the last few years), it is enterprise applications like those envisioned behind Cisco’s patent filing, that will drive change and improvements and therefore business value and return on investment. At the heart of this is the ability to leverage the immutable ledger as a source of truth, and to support smart contracts which execute code structured to act like “real” contracts, including rules, penalties, payments, and more.

The code for smart contracts, despite the definition we often hear regarding “distributed” systems with no requirement for middlemen, must be effectively audited by a 3rd party, sometimes by multiple 3rd parties, for vulnerabilities to ensure that the rules are coded correctly and the contracts are being adhered to.

Blockchain mining involves adding transactions to the existing blockchain ledger of transactions distributed among all users of a blockchain. While mining is mostly associated with bitcoin today, other technologies using a blockchain for enterprise applications employ mining as well by creating a hash of a block of transactions that cannot be easily forged, protecting the integrity of the entire blockchain without the need for a central system.

This mining is typically done on a dedicated computer, as it requires a fast CPU, as well as higher electricity usage and more heat generated than typical computer operations, something large service providers will need to be cognizant of as they begin leveraging blockchain to secure data. The truth is, blockchain transactions are still notoriously slow, so there are incentives for speeding things up for real-time sessions, which will create a huge boon for data centers and service providers who will stand up and manage extremely fast computers, yet another opportunity for both Cloud Service Providers and Communications Service Providers.

Billions of devices at the edge will need to connect to the Internet in order to communicate with a blockchain, which is where 5G connectivity becomes crucial, or connectivity closer to the edge using LoRa protocols; regardless of the network type, depending on the circumstances, data is being generated and exchanged, and new blockchain solutions will make these sessions and events secure and scalable. One of the best business applications for this is supply chain transformation, where all participants can benefit from the consistent, accurate, and reliable capture of data in real-time exchanged on a blockchain.

This is complicated, expensive, and impossible to do with legacy technology, but with the fusion of 5G combined with blockchain, and with continuing investments in data mining capabilities and new digital infrastructure, the accuracy and speed of the supply chain can move light years ahead.

The Blockchain Network Fusion educational initiative is perfectly timed to bring forward the new opportunities, principles, and collaborations across many disciplines that will unlock significant value as The Exchange of Everything envisioned and shared five years ago, becomes the new reality in 2020.

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