Blockchain is everywhere these days. The versatile digital ledger system is showing up in industries from banking to diamond mining. There seems to be no end to the disruption it is causing, and it’s becoming clear that blockchain-powered systems are here to stay.
This cutting-edge technology may also be poised to revolutionize a big part of the communications industry as well. That’s because developers have started to leverage the power of the blockchain to create a credible replacement for one of the communications industry’s oldest infrastructures, the public switched telephone network (PSTN).
The backbone of telephony
The PSTN is as ubiquitous as it is unknown. The term describes the interconnected telephone cable networks that have formed the backbone of telephone communications since the 1800’s. For more than 150 years, every phone call placed anywhere in the world has relied in some part on this aging technology.
For landlines, this is obvious. Few people know, however, that even cellular and VoIP systems rely on the PSTN to route calls between carriers and locations much of the time. The system has remained that way, despite the rapid worldwide adoption of the internet and the advances in digital voice transmission technologies.
The root of the problem
The primary reason that it has been difficult to design a suitable replacement for the PSTN is related to the enormous scale of the global telephone network. Since local telephone companies are responsible for the exchanges they service, creating one system that can replicate the routing functions performed by innumerable companies globally is quite a challenge.
The first large-scale attempt to move modern call routing and transmission onto the internet was called ENUM, which is an extended DNS service that includes records for IP PBX systems. In theory, this would allow registered phone systems to route voice traffic to any other registered system via the Internet. In practice, the possibility of ENUM server downtime (which happened frequently on the few publicly available servers) meant either continued reliance on the PSTN, or worse, loss of phone service.
The blockchain solution
The critical flaw in the ENUM concept was an over-reliance on a handful of public servers that were vulnerable to DDoS attacks and traffic slowdowns at times of peak call volume. For a critical infrastructure like telephony, those weaknesses made it a non-starter as a complete PSTN replacement. Developers are now starting to use blockchain technology to overcome those difficulties.
The duplicative and distributed nature of the blockchain makes it a perfect solution to many of ENUM’s problems. There’s already an upgraded implementation of ENUM, built using the Emercoin blockchain, that can provide an entirely decentralized phone address resolution system for VoIP services. As each participating phone system would house a copy of the entire global address registry within the blockchain, the traffic issues and DDoS vulnerabilities would be things of the past.
Phone companies react
As it turns out, traditional PSTN operators have seen this development – and the threat it represents to their business models – coming for some time. To that end, there’s been a global movement by the incumbent providers to deploy their own closed IP-based phone systems to transition off of the existing PSTN infrastructure. The reality is that this is mostly just a way to retain voice customers for the purpose of continuing to collect transmission fees. It is this transition that blockchain may short-circuit.
According to VoIP industry veteran Yungi Chu from Headsetplus.com:
“A decentralized phone directory that avoids data transit over voice-centric networks and instead uses existing internet connections would upend the telecommunications industry as we know it. It would allow VoIP users to make full use of their existing data connections and eliminate billions of dollars in wasteful voice service charges forever.”
For the incumbent providers, it may be a race against time – and irrelevance.
A seismic shift
If blockchain technology succeeds in wresting control of global voice traffic away from local telephone companies, it would complete the transformation of an 18th-century technology into one suited for the 21st century and beyond. Of all of the industries that have been disrupted (and will continue to be) by blockchain, none can match the global significance and lengthy historical pedigree of the global telephony industry. For the incumbent providers in the space, blockchain may have started a countdown to the kind of change that they’ve never faced – and probably had hoped to avoid.
To learn more about how the blockchain is changing telecommunications, read “Telecommunications And Blockchains: The Correlation Is Coming.”