How blockchain technology could help to manage UK telephone numbers

09 October 2018

Ofcom has received £700k from the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to explore how blockchain technology could improve how UK landline telephone numbers are managed.

Between now and April 2020, we’ll be inviting organisations to trial the porting and management of millions of telephone numbers using blockchain and ledger technology. We’ll be co-ordinating this work across industry, universities and other parties.

What is blockchain?

Blockchain was invented in 2008 to support the cryptocurrency bitcoin. Since then it has evolved to support business needs. It is based on locking ownership and status of a digital asset (in this case, a telephone number) with a cryptographic key, and a database platform that is distributed amongst members. Through key matching, business and data rules, the blockchain database reaches a consensus decision on the change to the digital asset.

Using blockchain will allow us to create transactions (in this case, consumer porting) between parties and manage the lifecycle of a telephone number, transforming data to support voice call routing and ownership.

What’s the potential of this project?

Thanks to the funding, we’ll be developing blockchain technology to improve how UK telephone numbers are managed.

Approximately one billion landline telephone numbers are available in the UK, either already in use or reserved for allocation. We issue blocks of these numbers to telecoms operators, who manage the numbers and movement (porting) of them into and out of their control.

Existing systems used for this process will need to change as telecommunication networks move from traditional analogue telephone lines to an all-IP (internet protocol) infrastructure.

Moving to blockchain has the potential to bring a number of benefits:

  • Improved customer experience when moving a number between providers;
  • Lower regulatory and business costs;
  • Increased industry agility, and
  • More effective management of nuisance calls and fraud.

Blockchain allows for greater transparency between users, and uses open-source software code. It is resilient because the number database can be replicated, allowing each user to have a copy. Updates can also be seen in real-time, by all users.

Previous attempts to develop a centralised database haven’t succeeded because of high costs and barriers to collaboration; but this technology offers an opportunity to build a cheaper, long-term system.

The technology and knowledge gained from this project will be one of the key long-term benefits for all the organisations that are involved, including Ofcom. We have the chance to test it before it is rolled out across the industry. We plan to share key learnings, best practices, and the underlying code base with other regulators, where we can.

We also expect that organisations taking part in the project or using the code will also learn and develop new skills, leading to further innovation and wider uses of the technology.

Mansoor Hanif, Ofcom Chief Technology Officer, said: “We will be working with industry to explore how blockchain could make it quicker and easier for landline customers to switch providers while keeping their number – as well as reducing nuisance calls. And we’ll expand our research into other areas where innovative technologies such as blockchain could be applied to benefit consumers.”