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Blockchain can help implement and scale wireless communications: Princeton Professor

Wireless is inherently decentralised, dispersed and distributed. Decentralisation and distributed control constitute the heart of blockchain technology, providing a natural way for individuals and miners to set up a base station in their houses, and connect the neighbourhood, says Prof. Pramod Vishwanath, of Princeton University

September 22, 2022 / 03:44 PM IST
Representative Image (Source: Shutterstock)

Representative Image (Source: Shutterstock)

Blockchain can help in the implementation and spread of trusted wireless communication networks.

Advanced approaches regarding the cooperation of distributed parties to create a common network are immensely helpful in enhancing the efficiency of the blockchain ecosystem.

Also Read: Ethereum blockchain says slashing energy use with software overhaul

Among the methods that help plug loopholes in the blockchain ecosystem is forensics. In case of a security breach, forensics facilitates mathematically specific identification of miners who have behaved maliciously.

Blockchain forensics can also be used for finding cybercriminals in the cryptocurrency market.

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Moneycontrol spoke to Pramod Vishwanath, Professor at Princeton University and Scientific Advisor to XDC Network, which provides for permissionless, open-source, energy-efficient application development.

Prof. Vishwanath advises the XDC network on protocol design choices as well as the lower-level details of engineering.

Edited excerpts:

Q1. How can blockchain technology be used in wireless networks, and what is the connection between blockchain and wireless?

Answer: Wireless networks are inherently decentralised. For starters, let us talk about the distributors. We have people all over the globe, and there is no way to centralise communication. One would have to secure a single antenna that can transmit to all places on earth to accomplish centralised communication. This is simply impossible to achieve.

To navigate this, an entity must establish a geographical distribution with many antennas, base stations, and routers. Most of the time, it is impractical for a single company to achieve this even if they try. Attaining global coverage means that a single company, even if it is centralized, will find it challenging to control all global locations. This is different from other platforms – e.g., Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook are global brands because they offer digital services which are geography-independent.

Looking at cell phone carriers, Airtel is well known in India, but it is hardly a household name outside. The same fate applies to Verizon and AT&T in the United States. Verizon and AT&T are dominant in the U.S, but we barely find their presence in Canada and Mexico, which are just across the border. Europe has its own carriers: Vodafone, T-Mobile, Orange, etc.

Wireless is inherently dispersed and distributed. Decentralisation and distributed control constitute the heart of blockchain technology. It also provides a natural way for individuals, miners, and wireless participants to set up a base station in their houses. Individuals can also install a lightweight router to support their neighborhood and stick together.

This will serve as a natural way to connect blockchain and wireless.

Q2. What are the challenges for Blockchain-based wireless networks?

Answer: There is a Blockchain-based wireless network called Helium. Helium has about one million hotspots and operates in many places of the world, including India. But Helium is essentially centralised, with only trusted vendors selling the hotspots, and the hotspots are “sealed shut” (no programmability).

So, Helium is not a Blockchain in the true sense. Nonetheless, Helium is in an up-and-coming stage for organically using Blockchain technology to grow a wireless network. Unlike Intel, Verizon, or AT&T, Helium is an organic network built by people wherever they are.

People can set up Helium hotspots inside their houses, businesses, or properties. It is a natural way to grow.

The critical issue would be: how can people stitch all these things together? How can people trust those with a base station, whether they are connected to the internet, or whether they are providing service? Who verifies all of these and how is it guaranteed?

These are core challenges to address.

Q3. Please explain the use cases of blockchain tech in wireless communications.

Answer: This is related to the previous question. Helium is one, but it has its drawbacks. Helium is still a web 2 company with a token that allows people a new kind of economics. Using the Helium token, people can participate, buy hotspots, and manage them on their own.

A company that I am a co-founder of is Kaleidoscope Blockchain (witnesschain.com), building technology that allows for decentralised, distributed base stations and routers to be stitched together in a harmonious, homogeneous, and most importantly, trust-free manner.

Witness Chain provides a set of cryptographic proof techniques for trust-free network measurements (what is the backhaul, the level of service received, etc.).

Q4 . Do you find your experience in wireless communication helpful in the context of blockchains?

Answer: Wireless networks are inherently distributed: to cover a large area, one needs many base stations simply due to the propagation losses wireless waveforms suffer from. So, we are used to thinking about distributed parties cooperating with each other to create a common network.

Second, wireless communication faces a hard and hostile medium: the landscapes change a lot (mountains, water bodies, urban canyons), and every tree leaf bounces the wireless signals differently.

So, we are used to building protocols that are robust, and sometimes even resistant to worst-case forms of noise: this thought process is naturally connected to blockchain protocols, where we work to design simple protocol steps that allow mutually untrusting parties to achieve consensus.

Finally, cellular wireless networks scale globally, i.e., an overwhelming majority of the people on this planet are connected wirelessly. This focus on scalable engineering designs naturally translates to building blockchain platforms that scale to millions (if not billions) of users and transactions.

Q5. How does the work on forensics impact users and developers of blockchain apps?

Answer: Blockchains are decentralised trust platforms. The forensics module enhances trust in the blockchain (malicious actors can be identified with mathematical certainty by tying together the cryptographic traces they leave behind, and thus they are less likely to pursue malicious behaviour). Enhanced trust or security is the bedrock of the long-term health and vitality of the platform.

Thus although the impact is not directly visible (in the form of user interface or experience), at the same time, the impact is at the core of how secure users and developers feel about the security and trust underlying the blockchain platform.

Q6. How useful will blockchain forensics be in combating cybercriminals in the cryptocurrency market?

Answer: There is an implicit public understanding that “cryptocurrencies are anonymous.” This is a myth. Not only can transactions be traced to wallets in a very precise manner, but also the traces can be done by anyone since the entire blockchain ledger is publicly available on the Internet.

However, such tracing leading to physical (real-world) identity requires careful data analytics and social network forensics. This is conducted by several players in the blockchain space.

In our work, we focus on identifying the source of illicit transactions, which are a direct threat to the integrity of blockchains. Such forensic technology increases user trust in blockchains and also allows insurance markets to function.

This is a much sought-after area of the blockchain technology space and a key missing piece in making blockchain transactions truly mainstream, and comparable to fiat monetary systems. The broad goal of the forensics module is to provide a (cryptographically sound) avenue to hold attackers accountable and be brought to “justice”.

Q7. What is the XDC Network protocol, and how efficient is it?

Answer: The XDC Network ($XDC) allows permissionless, open-source application development, but I will focus here on the underlying technology.

XDC uses a proof of stake protocol to achieve consensus among the participating nodes; the upcoming version (known as XDPoS 2.0) is a state-of-the-art BFT protocol (Hotstuff) adapted into an efficient blockchain consensus protocol.

The protocol itself and its leader election procedures allow for theoretically-optimal low communication complexity, thus making the XDC network one of the most energy-efficient blockchains in the world.

The protocol also allows a large pool of full node participants (known as masternodes, currently 108 in number) and represents the theoretically most efficient design possible. I advise the XDC network on protocol design choices as well as the lower-level details of engineering and secure implementation.
Murtuza Merchant is a senior journalist and an avid follower of blockchain and cryptocurrencies.
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