How SMS Messages and Other Carrier-Grade Services Could Be Moving to Enterprise-Grade Blockchain
As enterprises begin to adopt blockchain technology in order to optimize their systems and processes in ways that simply cannot be done with other technologies, the likelihood that their customers will know or care could be low. After all, once deployed in enterprise fashion, blockchain typically occupies a fabric-like spot within the organization's enterprise information technology stack. In other words, not necessarily at the customer-facing surface. And there's no industry where this could be more true than in the telecommunications and carrier business where the sorts of integrations that make it possible for people to call or text their friends and families across different carriers are fraught with technological and settlement challenges due to lack of a single source of truth. As Syniverse Sr. Distinguished Engineer of Emerging Technologies, Monique Morrow explained to Blockchain Journal editor-in-chief David Berlind at World Economic Forum 2023 in Davos, Switzerland, both Syniverse (which itself is in the SMS fabric of hundreds of carriers) and the GSM Association (GSMA) where she chairs the GSMA-Distributed Ledger Technology Group have a pretty clear understanding of the business problems that blockchain can solve in the telecommunications industry (full-text transcript appears below).
By David BerlindPublished:January 23, 2023
What are the telecom industry's use cases for blockchain?
David Berlind: Hi, I'm David Berlind with Blockchain Journal. I'm here in Davos, Switzerland, at World Economic Forum. And I'm roaming all up and down the Promenade, the main road that leads into the Congress Center where the World Economic Forum is taking place, looking for enterprise blockchain stories. And I believe I've found one. My guest right now is Monique Morrow. She is a senior-distinguished engineer of emerging technology at a company called Syniverse. So Monique, thank you very much for joining me on the show.
Monique Morrow: It's a pleasure to be here.
Berlind: Yeah, it's great to have you. So what I'd like to ask first so that all of our viewers understand, what is Syniverse, and how big is it?
Morrow: Well, Syniverse is a company that's quite old, I'll say over 30, probably 37 years old, based in Tampa, Florida. And mainly focused on mobile communications, so SMS, text messaging. So messaging overall is what its focus has been. And so, it's really in the carrier space, telecommunication space, although we'd like to say we're a technology company. So that's what Syniverse is in a nutshell.
Berlind: And so are the carriers your customers?
Morrow: Carriers are indeed our customers and so are... Now the business has been divided between carriers and also enterprise customers. So enterprise customers, you can think of banks, you can think of different verticals but mainly the carrier space.
Berlind: What do carriers come to you for?
Morrow: Well, the thing of it is that we are involved in the text messaging relationship with them so we actually interact with the carrier. So when you have a text message on your phone, you can thank Syniverse and the carriers.
Berlind: So you're providing the basic infrastructure to the carriers to manage their SMS infrastructure?
Morrow: Correct. You could actually couch it that way.
Berlind: So we don't know it but when we're using text on our phones, it's probably going through you.
Morrow: That is correct, indeed it is.
Berlind: Wow. So you're a bona fide enterprise, 37 years, all these carriers.
Morrow: A small company. We should say a small company. So we're probably around maybe about 1700 people. We've kept our company very, fairly small. So we're fairly small and an enterprise so we do care about quality as through our carriers. You can imagine our customers are going to care about that.
Berlind: So senior distinguished engineer of emerging technology, blockchain is one of those emerging technologies, is it on your radar?
Morrow: It is indeed, blockchain is, and we can talk about others, but blockchain mainly because this is the purpose of our conversation today. Absolutely, the thing about blockchain is to make sure that there is a business aspect to it. We don't want to go deep into a conversation that's too technical. I mean, what's the business problem we want to solve? So that's what we start out with. And so, indeed, it is something as an emerging technology, I would say a technology that has arrived, although we've been following it, that we do care about.
Berlind: That seems to be a common theme whenever I talk to anybody who's involved in any technology for the enterprise which is the starting point is what business problem are we trying to solve? So in your explorations, what business problems does blockchain look to solve?
Morrow: So we are thinking, for example, how do we look at billing friction, especially between amongst ourselves. Internally, what is the billing friction that we have to look at? We are a conglomerate of several companies and so you can imagine that you have these companies that have come together, but there's a friction, they're siloed. So are we losing contracts, for example? Are we losing any insights into our billing? So blockchain has a place there.
Berlind: How so, might I add? What characteristic of blockchain helps eliminate the billing friction that you're –
Morrow: Well, you have a single... We commonly call this a Single Source of Truth but you're able to see transparency in the process of who is signing off for what bill, what process, et cetera. That, for us, is very important because right now it's very clunky, it's very heavy. And so, we certainly have been looking at that.
Berlind: That's another common story I'm hearing is the Single Source of Truth story where if you have multiple parties involved in some sort of contractual engagement, if each party has its own Ledger, then it's a lot of work to reconcile any incongruencies between those ledgers. And so this idea of a single ledger, a public blockchain of some sort, resolves that particular problem because everybody has a view of the same thing.
Morrow: Especially when we're dealing with third party, so you picked up on it very, very nicely. And so, that's one thing because otherwise it's sending probably an Excel sheet from one source to another source to another source and that's just not going to scale. Additionally, I'm also chair of the GSMA Distributed Ledger Technology Group.
Berlind: Pause there, what is the GSMA for everybody who don't know?
Morrow: So it's a global... This is a global mobile group. And so –
Berlind: Okay. All the carriers –
Morrow: It's for the carriers –
Berlind: It's a standard setting organization?
Morrow: A part of it's a standard setting organization. It's an industry group so mainly driven by carriers, telecommunications providers. I would come in or Syniverse would come in as a solution provider for carriers. And so for that, it was actually approved and actually recommended by the carriers that we should have a Distributed Ledger Technology group. What we mean by DLT, underscoring it or underpinning it is blockchain itself. We could think of different types of DLTs, whether it's Ethereum, whether it's Hyperledger Fabric, whatever your favorite DLT is. And so, that's the starting point.
Berlind: So just going back to the GSMA for a moment. When the world is going to move off of some older cellular phone technology to a newer one, that's a big deal for the GSMA because all the carriers are there, that's their consortium. And that's where they talk about, "Okay, what are we moving from and to and how are we going to maintain compatibility so that I can call you no matter what system you're on?"
Morrow: Correct. And so, 5G is, we're thinking you got 4G, 5G, so newer tech generations of communications is definitely part of the conversation.
Berlind: So Distributed Ledger Technology is of great importance to them because maybe they're seeing some opportunities to eliminate friction between whatever it is?
Morrow: And there have been wonderful use cases, blockchain for wholesale roaming is an example of that.
Berlind: How does that work?
Morrow: So for blockchain, for wholesale roaming, because you're roaming between each other, wholesale roamers –
Berlind: We're all roaming here.
Morrow: ... So it's a contract. I have a contract with you, you have a contract with the next individual organization. So it's smart contract relationships. And so I agreed to settle, because it's settlement, you're settling a price –
Berlind: You're speaking about carriers, right?
Morrow: ... between carriers.
Berlind: Yeah. So I'm on Verizon, I don't know what carriers –
Morrow: Let's say let's say Verizon and maybe Swisscom.
Berlind: Right, so when I'm roaming on Swiss Telecom, that requires some settlement between the two companies?
Morrow: Absolutely, it's a settlement. And then this settlement, the friction act can actually be removed via a smart contract relationship. And that those use cases have been actually well defined past several years. And so now it's just double-clicking on more of those use cases. And so blockchain for wholesale roaming was the first use case that the GSMA came out with it.
Berlind: Very interesting.
Morrow: And so, let me just say one thing about blockchain overall for the enterprise. It's about the business, so the friction that we are trying to solve, billing, Lossy Contracts, do we have insights? Do we know what we're doing? Especially with third party, that circle sort of a trust, and it may be... Some right now you're seeing it more private permissioned. Maybe at some point in time we move to a hybrid open area. And I think it's more or less in that vein, that's what we're looking at.
Berlind: You're referring to the difference between permissioned blockchain and permissionless blockchain. Those are two big differences.
Morrow: Correct, correct, correct. So what you're seeing now is the universe in the enterprise space is mainly, in the world that I'm sitting in is private permission. At some point in time, I think there's going to be a conversation of, "Let's look at how we make it more hybrid. Let's look at how we make it more scalable." And so those are the conversations that are definitely starting to happen and to occur. And so we know that these are tools, and I want to just say blockchain is a tool as are other tools that we believe could solve some problems where we see friction, billing is an example.
Berlind: Sure. And the single source of truth, when you talk about the permissioned nature of the blockchains that are in place right now. I'm assuming by permissioned in this world, in this industry, permission means you have a lot of carriers that are on the same chain, but they are permissioned into the chain. There's really nobody else participating.
Morrow: By nature, you would, they know one another. That's the permission, that's the universe that they know one another. Now, there could be an argument says, "Well, that's not really blockchain. That could be an SQL database really." But at least it's an experiment with the parties who know one another. And I think that's one step in a phase of understanding blockchain and being able to use it for the cases that we're describing.
Berlind: You mentioned Smart Contracts, and just for our audience, the smart contract is the way by which an enterprise would write some form of custom code that runs on top of the blockchain to make the blockchain do exactly what it is they need to do.
Morrow: Yeah, I would call them bullion... Yes, it's code. I wouldn't say it's smart, probably the earliest example of a smart contract is a vending machine that's not so smart, but it works. So you put your money in and you assume that it's going to work. In the background of a smart contract, those are conditions, and for those who like to code, it says, "If you do this, then you do that." They're bullion integers and so that's what a smart contract is.
Berlind: But a smart contract also helps digitally transform certain processes and optimize them to eliminate opportunities for human error. Where you mentioned before, there's some of this clunkiness when you're trying to work between carriers, it probably helps out there too, right?
Morrow: Correct. And that's an important observation because you don't want garbage in, garbage out.
Berlind:Oh boy. You're going back, that's the 30-year-old, GIGO.
Morrow: That's your GIGO, and it still applies. And so this is important to note that you have conditions, if there are conditions that will execute, you want them to execute. Then you get into coding languages, then you get into the technology components behind it. And most people know some of these coding languages already.
Berlind:You mentioned earlier that Syniverse is 37 years old. That's an –
Morrow: They're about, yeah.
Berlind:... That's an old school company at this point.
Berlind: How difficult was it to get an old school company like that on board with a brand-new technology like blockchain, especially given what's been happening in the Cryptocurrency space over the last year? Because a lot of people are just seeing headlines in the news that basically sullies the underlying technology to some extent. Maybe to an extent where they sort of say, "No, we don't want any part of that." When they don't realize that blockchain is an application platform is very different from Cryptocurrency and all of the retail investment going on in that.
Morrow: Well, I've been with the company circa about three years. So it's all about bringing in people to evolve the business together. So it's taking the business along a journey. And so I'd like to distinguish between the bad press that's been out there and what's positive. The bad press has been out there only underscores the need in the industry for what I'll call due diligence and Governance. So that's very, very important. That means taking also, hate to say this, but you have to say it regulators along the journey, because our business is regulated, highly regulated. So we need to make sure we take regulators along the journey in this process.
So we'd like to distinguish that. We like to look at the underpinning aspects of the tool itself, which is blockchain. And we believe and we understand that that has business aspects to us and we are actually proving it. Whether you create a blockchain center of excellence in your company and so on. But it's taking people along the journey. And with regard to crypto, with regard to other aspects of it, even though we settle in Fiat, we settle in dollars and euros and stuff. We don't settle in crypto and we're not at that aspect. We're not at that point yet to settle in something called crypto. We're going to keep it at Fiat at this point in time and to prove otherwise.
Berlind: Sure. The other day I was over at a presentation that was being given in Circles Building that's down the promenade, Circle, the Stablecoin company. And I heard the chief operating officer use a phrase that they called the Regulatory Perimeter, which the picture I had in my mind, the way she described it was kind of like an ameba. The cell walls are constantly changing, like shifting and moving around. Gary Gensler from the SEC says one thing one day and another thing the next. And the Regulatory Perimeter changes shape. Is that something that you have to keep an eye on?
Morrow: Absolutely. We are a global company, so it's not only what's happening in the United States, it's happening in the European Union, it's what happening... So we have to keep our eyes across all of the aspects of where we touch our customers, and that's global. So we do care about what we call, I think the Regulatory Perimiter is a very good term. And it means also, now the thing there is, it means taking regulators along the journey. Because what happens if you have something that's overly regulated, then you don't have the opportunity to innovate, and innovate in a way that you want to be able to innovate that is safe, safe for your customer, safe for your business. So it's important that regulators be taken.
Berlind: So when you say you're taking them along on the journey, that must mean that you are in touch with the regulators and try to influence them.
Morrow: We are in touch with regulators. Even within the GSMA did you have to be in touch with regulators. Otherwise, what happens is, as I stated before, they're off looking at this and then you're disjointed and then something happens and then you have to actually abide by what is regulation. It is quite important to be involved with them. It is quite important to actually talk about what does education look like, what does training look like together? So I would argue that regulators are going to have to be able to be savvy in this business and understand the underpinning technologies, understanding the value that it has. But also understanding what the risks are so that we can actually look at how we mitigate against risks together as an industry.
Berlind: Do they get it?
Morrow: I think they're starting to get it, that's a very general question. I think the thing of it is that people are still coming out of the FTX fiasco, et cetera. And it means going back and saying, "Hey, but blockchain is here and is here to stay, and it's not going to go away."
Berlind: I think part of the concern, particularly in the United States is that there's so many differing opinions across the regulators, the lawmakers, that it's going to hold the US back in terms of innovation until that's resolved. Meanwhile, we had Yulia Parkhomenko who is with the Ministry of Digital Transformation in Ukraine in here, in the studio the other day. And they are just zipping along, it's remarkable given what's going on in Ukraine that they're even getting any work done. But they are moving very fast, have a mandate from President Zelenskyy to digitally transform the whole country. And it's like a no holds barred effort, which means that they're going to zip past a lot of other countries. And I think about that and I think about, "Wow, are we in danger because of this Regulatory conversation that's unresolved as of yet of losing our innovative footing that we typically have in the world?" And when I say we, I speak of the United States because I happen to be based there.
Morrow: Well, so I am a dual citizen, US and Swiss, so in the United States, there is a risk, absolutely a risk because it's so disjointed. The conversations are so disjointed. So if you look at the countries, and I'm impressed by the way, with what's happening in Ukraine, I'm utterly impressed. In fact, talking with some of my colleagues from Ukraine, they're saying, "Gosh, you guys are using such old technology, you're way behind us." What is your country vision? And then you have state vision.
If you look at China, country vision. Or you look at any of the countries, what is it? What is your vision to think about what does transformation mean? What kinds of technologies are you going to need to support? I'm thinking the United States, the White House has also this technology group, and so that breaks down to what happens within the Congress, and that breaks down the states and so on and so forth. But you have to really execute and execute fast. Some states may be executing faster than others, but you cannot be encumbered by your own sets of what I'll call complex regulation between states, between federal government and so on. Otherwise, that will just hold you down.
Berlind: I feel like I could talk to you for hours because you really have your hands on all of the buttons here when it comes to blockchain in the enterprise, regulation and so on. One last question is, you're here at World Economic Forum, what is it you're trying to accomplish and have you gotten it accomplished yet?
Morrow: Listening to these conversations about responsible protocols, blockchain is an example of it. And I think also, how can we use these technologies to actually create even a bigger bolder business? And yes, I'm getting a lot of conversations that are going in that direction and it's meeting my goal for being here in Davos.
Berlind: Is blockchain in the conversation behind closed doors all around world?
Morrow: Absolutely. And they're calling it sort of responsible protocols, enterprise-grade, which is how we started the conversation in the first place. And not so much about making money, but actually looking at other verticals. How can we apply to the medical healthcare vertical and the oil and gas vertical and so on. We are just at the tip of the iceberg of what is possible in enterprise-grade blockchain.
Berlind: I'm glad we're working on enterprise blockchain at Blockchain Journal here. So thank you very much. Well have a great rest of your World Economic Forum. Thank you for joining me here on our show.
Morrow: It's a pleasure. Thank you once again.
Berlind: We've been speaking with Monique Morrow. She's the senior-distinguished engineer of emerging technology at Syniverse. Thanks for joining us. Look for more of our videos on our YouTube channel @Blockchain Journal.