UAE Telecom Giant Du Sees ‘Infinite’ Potential for Blockchain

Jun 7, 2016 at 14:30 UTC
Updated Jun 7, 2016 at 21:48 UTC
FEATURE

du, dubai

If the Technicolor lobby at Du’s Dubai headquarters is a showcase of the latest and greatest in mobile tech, the registration desk for its office visitors provides a starkly different experience.

As if to illustrate the extent of the divide between progress made on technologies that create information, and those that authenticate and manage it, Du visitors are each asked to present a plastic ID so it can be filed in bright blue, wooden box. At the time of my arrival, a series of yellow sticky notes, each augmented with handwritten numbers, indicates that up to 700 IDs are being stored in the state-of-the-art system.

High above the entrance, however, the foundation for the technology that could solve this problem is in its early stages of development.

There, Jose Valles, Du’s vice president of enterprise commerce, is working to identify how blockchain could position the company to help create new applications in identity and authentication. Such a move would be an extension of Du’s current business, he argues, as the company already provides this service by assisting in the validation of bank transactions.

Together with Etisalat, Du is one of two authorized telecom providers in the UAE, earning revenues of AED 12.34bn (around $3m) from over 7 million customers. As such, Valles believes Du has the reach and customers to roll out what could one day be a wide variety of blockchain solutions.

Valles told CoinDesk:

“The number of opportunities is infinity. Blockchain is an underlying layer that can be used for a lot of things, wherever there is a transaction.”

As a first move toward this possible future, Du has joined Dubai’s Global Blockchain Council (GBC), a more than 40-member union of regulatory bodies, financial firms and tech startups investigating the technology under the direction of the Museum of the Future, the government’s incubation arm.

In a bid to show progress, seven proof-of-concepts (PoCs) were presented by the GBC last week, however, it was Du’s announcement it would seek to determine the applicability of the technology in securing health records that has perhaps grabbed the lion’s share of the headlines.

Healthcare interest

According to Valles, Du’s investigation of the healthcare market was inspired by the Dubai government’s exploration of how health records could be better secured and protected from malicious activities.

The effort is also being explored in the industry itself, and follows recent announcements from blockchain startups like Gem and healthcare providers such as Philips.

“When we saw these activities, there is a risk in terms of managing this data, having it secure. We thought we could secure all that data of health with blockchain,” Valles said.

Valles went on to state that Du was encouraged to pick a similarly expansive topic based on what he described as the expansive aims of the GBC as a whole.

So far, other PoCs have focused on topics such as improving tourism (an effort that also involves Du) and allowing international businesses to more easily establish a presence in the country’s free zones.

For the healthcare project specifically, Du has partnered with Estonian distributed ledger startup GuardTime, a startup that recently rose to prominence in the wider distributed ledger discussion following the news it would secure 1 million health records in Estonia.

Valles said the two companies are in the process of finalizing the PoC and seeking to recruit local hospitals to join in trials of the technology.

Long-term opportunities

However, Du has a longer-term view of the technology, one that’s more comparable to Valles’ 35-story view of the city, complete with crystal-blue beaches, seven-star hotels and the dusty desert beyond.

Valles invoked an expansive yet distant vision for how Du could play a role in delivering new forms of identity.

“I do believe there is a business opportunity [in blockchain], because we run the know-your-customer process. We can be an accreditation blockchain users can verify through the telephone,” he said.

As for when the business check-in process may be easier at Du, however, he believes this future is less clear.

Valles was keen to caution that Du still has due diligence to perform on the technology, even while he revealed himself to an optimist about its potential.

“When people started building roads, nobody thinks about the cement, they thing about the car. With blockchain, it will provide value for new businesses,” he said, concluding:

“Blockchain is going to enhance the lives of people.”

Images via Pete Rizzo for CoinDesk