Diversifying and Densifying the 5Gs Supply Chain with Blockchain, Maria Lema of Weaver Labs


Diversifying and Densifying the 5Gs Supply Chain with Blockchain, Maria Lema of Weaver Labs

June 2020

Posted by

Jamie Burke

CEO and Founder

Maria is an Uruguayan scientist and Web 3 Founder who launched the UK’s first 5G UK Testbed out of Kings College London in 2017 and has run several pilots with the likes of The European Space Agency. She is also Co-Founder of Weaver Labs. 

Posted by Jamie Burke - June 2020

June 2020

Posted by

Jamie Burke

CEO and Founder

At Weaver Labs they are building a decentralised connectivity marketplace that accelerates both the public and private sectors mission for greater diversification in supply chains for improved security and competition in 5G. She talks about why you can’t have a truly decentralised internet without first decentralising networking infrastructure and its importance to ‘connectivity inclusion’ into the digital economy.


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Jamie: Welcome to the founders of Web 3 series by Outlier Ventures and me your host Jamie Burke. Together we’re going to meet the entrepreneurs that backers and the leading policymakers that are shaping Web 3. Together we’re going to try to define what is Web 3, explore its nuances and understand the mission and purpose the drivers founders. If you enjoy what you hear, please do subscribe, rate and share your feedback to help us reach as many people as possible with the important mission that is Web 3.

Today, I’m happy to welcome Maria Lema, co founder of Weaver Labs. She is a Uruguayan scientist based here in the UK and a Web 3 Founder. Welcome Maria.

Maria: Hello, Jamie.

Jamie: So you’re quite unique as a Web 3 founder in that you have spent out of academia at King’s College London, where you’re working on some pretty hardcore R&D and networking and telecommunications, which isn’t typical of most founders in the Web 3 space. Weaver is described as building a privacy preserving secure an open source communications network, which should hopefully begin to indicate some of the relevancy towards Web 3 and the technologies that we know and love and really, as a individual, and of course, this manifests in Weaver, you are a champion of both open source software, as well as Internet and communication architectures. So open architectures as well as decentralisation, you’ve delivered some incredibly complex projects from R&D to implementation, working at the intersection of industry, academia and governmental agencies in incredibly sensitive areas of the communications infrastructure. And of course, our economy. And you do this by championing a particular approach to building ecosystems, ecosystem based projects that you call collaborative creation. And I think this is such a critical skill set for Web 3, all of Web 3 because of its decentralised nature. So I’m really looking forward to having you on the show.

Maria: Thank you. That’s a really nice introduction.

Jamie: So other reasons why I wanted to bring you on. I think when people think of Web 3, they think of it in terms of cryptocurrency decentralised finance, and equally they think of it in terms of when I think of security in that context. They think about that in terms of devices and platforms, not really the networking side, the communication side, however, there’s this increasingly topical discussion around 5g and of course Huawei as 5g has been rolled out around the world, and most Specifically, at least importantly to your UI as citizens Anyway, here in the UK, but not many people realise that there is also this kind of bottom up alternative approach enabled by technologies like blockchain. And I guess within communications, you have also been working at this intersection of blockchain with big data, Ai, robotics, and what you call a user immersive applications like AR and VR, of course, all things possible, should 5g be successful. And so you’re a great example of what Outlier we call convergence. And of course, that’s why we were really happy to bring you into an accelerator program. We ran out of London last year. So of course, we already know each other and as a disclaimer, we are an investor in proud investor in Weaver and when you look at the applications of a lot of the technologies that you’re building, it really extends this call. concept of Web 3, as I said, beyond financial services to other areas of the economy, so healthcare, manufacturing, transport, culture and entertainment. So to give the audience an introduction to you and your background you initially studied at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia and where you didn’t turn ship in mobile communications research around 2009. There’s a lot of anachronisms in here that we probably want to avoid. I think one we might have to just very quickly impact because it’s consistent to through a few of these is LTE interface coordination, but you really been working at system level research and looking at how you optimise different types of networks. And I believe they’re you were involved in the furious Spanish project with seven different partners. What the hell’s LTE? give me give me a layman example. Is that just not possible? Is it too complex?

Maria: It’s the Long Term Evolution is the static Are that it’s behind 4g communication system. Perfect.

Jamie: That was really easy. Okay, let’s hope the rest of that easy. So then you went on to become a research engineer at wireless communications and technologies, why comm tech from 2010 2015? Again, in Barcelona, Spain, and you were looking at LTE system level research and mobile communications in particular around downlink and uplink. And again, looking at how you optimise those in areas such as energy efficiency, and what have you. You then joined King’s College London as a research associate in 2015. Were you lad were you the lead researcher for the 5g tactile internet project funded by Ericsson Of course. Ericsson is one of those entities that’s been championed, at least by the US and some players within Europe as an alternative to wall lag in the context of 5g Of course, you were leading a lot of that initiative there. And within that role, I guess this is where you began to increasingly work with a wide variety of different industry partners and stakeholders, including industrial collaborations and thinking about how you do the architectural design and evaluation of 5g procedures. So modelling, analysis, simulation, and optimization, you then again within King’s College, became a technical lead and project manager for a 5g Uk testbed in London, which was funded by the UK Government and a number of industry partners, and you lead technical activities at the 5g Lab, which is a multidisciplinary development and implementation team. And again, there are lots of acronyms, anachronisms, f3, GPP, NFV, SDN technology integrations, we’re definitely not going to go into those but ultimately You were involved in all aspects of that. So that was negotiations with suppliers, the procurement process, board facing interactions with government representatives, and working across all the different vendors, cloud operators and stuff like that then led you to spin out with some of that, that those those team members to co found with lamps in December 19. And it was there really that you kind of had this vision for an alternative approach. So kind of using that as a segue into the many different interesting topics that we can talk about. What was it throughout all of that, that led you to the conclusion that there was something missing or something broken from, I guess, both how the these approaches that were being put forward, I guess, as a company A technical component to that. And there’s also like a systems design or a kind of a, an ecosystem aspect to that, what was wrong, what wasn’t working? And where did these insights come about throughout your journey from Catalonia Polytechnic all the way through to the more recent work with the 5g testbed.

Maria: So I think that all my research and all the work that I have been doing in the last, I don’t know how many years of working in the space of telecoms created a sense of curiosity on innovation and, and how to apply technical solutions to solve real life problems. And while working in the 5g Lab, I encountered many, many business problems and real life problems that could be solved with communications networks and technologies. And that gives you a way of thinking and creating an innovative In everyday lives and also in in different industries. But when I started the project, the test and trials project with with GCMS and working with the team, I had no idea what decentralisation was I was very much immersed into this world of centralised entities that control communications networks. And the most I could know about decentralisation was the concept of peer to peer networks. That was something that was in my space of research sometime around the year 2000 to 2005. But it was a dead topic in research. If you wrote a paper about peer to peer networks, you probably wouldn’t be very successful in publishing it because they would say that was old research. But all of a sudden with with a new team members that we brought in and that was the first person I hired at Kings for the 5g test. That was funny. My co founder he’s, he’s has been in the space of decentralisation Bitcoin a long time and he was the one who introduced me to, to Bitcoin decentralised technologies distributed, Ledger’s. And then I asked him to clone himself and then he brought in James. That was really funny because then, if they had studied together maths and the two of them they had been working together for a long time inside projects, involving cryptocurrencies and decentralised technologies. And, and again, that nurtured the curiosity and then with a bit of time, then Alex came in again, he was also coming from the Bitcoin and mining and building applications on top of blockchain infrastructures. So I guess we are Weaver because we have weaved technology coming from the telecoms world into the decentralised space. And we have met point where we did the problems that we saw When we were delivering the 5g test that could be addressed with decentralisation of telecommunications assets. those problems essentially were that it was impossible to integrate networks without the control of a system integrator. And a system integrator, essentially, it’s a company, or a team that developed software to make different elements of a network talk to each other. And the way that you can solve this problem is by two ways either you go and you buy a tightly bundled solution from one equipment vendor and you make sure that you don’t have to touch it and it works. But then if you want to be creative and you want to integrate different aspects of technology into this network, then you need to develop resources within your team to integrate all these assets together. So, there is a centralised component on integration Right here and, and there is work, my co-founder saw where decentralisation could play a really important role in telecoms assets. And then together we came up with with what Weaver now is, which is a software that allows to automate system integration in telecommunications networks.

Jamie: Great. So we’re definitely going to get into breaking that down a little bit later. So maybe people coming in cold to communications and telecommunications and networking. As I said, this is not an often discussed topic in the context of Web 3. Could you give us a primer on the world of communications and in particular 5g, you know, why is 5g different? And I guess why does 5g make decentralisation a more important topic?

Maria: First, we may need to draw the importance of why communications infrastructure is important. A lot of people tend to fall Forget that telecommunications infrastructure is the pipes where all the information is transmitted. If we want successful economies, we need strong communications infrastructure. Wireless does not only power the telecoms industry powers the entire economy. And it’s important that the infrastructure strategy investment is done with the mindset that it’s not only to put the success of the equipment vendors or the telco operators, but economies and societies as a whole. So we have problems right now that exist even in the UK, which is called the digital divide, and our people, our families that aren’t that have no access to reliable communications infrastructure. And the problem is because we deploy communications infrastructure based on commercially centralised decisions. Is it profitable for me as a mobile network? operates or to go and deploy a network somewhere. If I don’t have X amount of users accessing these network, then it’s not commercially viable for me. However, as a government, and as a society as a whole, I need to have everyone connected. And we have seen this with COVID. Right? It has been really important to have everyone connected with 51% of the workforce going to work from home. And the reason 5g is important right now is because we have an opportunity to change the paradigm of how we build networks. And 5g is not only important because it allows industries to scale, right? It’s the low latency that we call that it’s ultra fast networks. It’s not the fact that we’re going to transmit 10 times more bandwidth, is the fact that now we have a way to reduce the cost of deploying networks and incentivise other players. To participate in the supply chain.

Jamie: Yeah, I mean, that’s really interesting. So if we think about, again, inclusion, inclusion, usually in the context of Web 3 means financial inclusion, but in your context, its connectivity being connected and able to participate in the digital economy. And I guess, am I right in saying that the web can only be so we could build all this very decentralised software. But the internet or the web can only be as decentralised as the internet and the networking beneath it, right? Otherwise, you’re kind of relying upon these centralised bottlenecks.

Maria: Exactly. So the thing is that we are building a lot of decentralised application applications that run on centrally owned infrastructures and networks that are based on bilateral decision making rather than multilateral decision making. And that’s precisely where we have achieved a tipping point in communications infrastructure. 5g deployments are recognised to take Almost 70% of the revenues that mobile network operators are making, that is not sustainable and mobile network operators have identified that the demand is not meeting the requirement of investment. So we need new models for new participants to come into the collaboration, the collaborative approach that we need for infrastructure,

Jamie: maybe to just kind of unpack 5g again a little bit more. He talked about that being kind of two main paradigms is fixed broadband, and the mobile networks and this kind of generational evolution from 2g to 5g. And obviously, the promises that 5g can be much quicker and it can scale. Why is that? Is there a way that you can make that a little bit more accessible to people who, again, who aren’t that familiar with networking communications?

Maria: So networks, we can think about it in two ways. Either you Have the Wi Fi at home, right the connection that you get. That’s the fixed broadband generally. And then we have the mobile networks that are the ones that we use with our phones with our tablets and usually have these SIM cards that we buy from a mobile network operator. The approaches of building these networks are inherently different. The fixed networks tend to be more open source or open architectures, open platforms tend to follow more standardisation bodies that are more open. Like for example, the internet based on packet switching, which is the internet protocol that allows the sense of plug and play you know, I buy a Wi Fi router, I don’t care what kind of antenna it has, what vendor etc. I just plug it in my house and works because there is a lot of interoperability existing and then that’s thanks to the work that standardisation bodies have done and a lot of industry together. Then we have mobile networks and mobile networks. These are the economies call them the bell heads. And that’s basically driven and championed by the bell industries in the US were proprietary and closed and circuit switch network, which means it’s not decentralised nature is more centralised in the way that I route the traffic across a certain path and very much owned and proprietary the technology. So these mobile networks have evolved from first g 2g, 3g, 4g 5g. And now in 5g, we have the opportunity to have a paradigm that is a lot more similar to what fix networks do in terms of interoperability. And the reason being is because now everything can run in cheap software and cheap hardware sorry, and be controlled by software. So you means that we no longer need these boxes that we don’t understand what it’s running inside. And everything can be commoditised from the hardware perspective, and then we get pieces of software that makes the network more intelligent. So by working on the software side, we can empower interoperability in the network.

Jamie:  So is it fair to say that that scales kind of horizontally then versus kind of vertically? Correct?

Maria: Yeah. So mobile networks and communications in general, they have a tendency to be vertically integrated. And not only from from the infrastructure, but also from from the application and down. And now, there is a strong discussion in the community about open architectures for horizontal integration of networks. And that is where we can actually see the change with 5g because all of a sudden, with software you can do a lot more.

Jamie: I guess. This is why now This topic is very invoked, or it’s kind of being discussed, both within large organisations in an enterprise environment. But I guess from a media coverage perspective, it’s much more in a public context, you know, how governments are choosing to realise five G’s in a national regional context. So what are the different strategies that are being adopted by different corporations and governments and on why are they in the spotlight right?

Maria: There is a strong discussion right now around 5g and geopolitics and and how it affects not only the the economy but the political decisions at the same time, right. And this is just my thinking and my own reflection on the whole story. It’s a security issue at the same time. There is a risk on Depending on just one equipment vendor, and this narrative has to be translated not only to a particular equipment vendor that is Huawei, but to any other the dependency on just one is that and we as company owners, we know that we have multiple suppliers, we have multiple customers, right? Because we know that there is a risk on having just one. So that is where I think the narrative needs to be paced, we need to diversify the supply chain, not only because there is a risk of giving too much power to one company, and having a monopoly that it’s not only geographically concentrated in a country but globally, which I think it’s a high risk, but also because it nurtures innovation and it increases competition in an industry that needs it a lot. And in terms of the strategies that that we are seeing mainly they’re twofold. One is the Rakuten model that it’s called now, which is Rakuten is a Japanese ecommerce platform. And they have shown the world how we can create networks fully cloud based and using multiple vendor equipment, making it interoperable. They could do that because they spend significant effort in integrating assets and developing software that allowed all these vendor equipment to talk to each other. And championing the idea of horizontal integration. We see that there is a large part of the industry that is getting into that, which is Microsoft acquiring Mehta switch and other telco companies. Facebook leading the telecom info project, which is an open initiative with more than 500 companies, telco companies, working together for open standards and open interfaces to Create interoperable networks. And open source groups such as the open networking Foundation, part of the Linux Foundation, who are basically backed by the industry. So most of the biggest telecom operators contribute there. And they are releasing all the software stacks that were proprietary in the past. So we see a lot of innovation happening there. And, and it’s growing quite fast. But then on the other hand, we still see that there is a trust component, that it’s being placed into the large equipment vendors, essentially, because communications networks need to work and it’s okay to innovate. But at some point, we need to make money out of it. So then we will go to the one that has been doing these for the last 30 years and make sure that it works. So there we see still all these big contracts being signed by mobile network operators with large equipment vendors for 5g but What we are seeing is that that is probably going to end quite soon. And the more innovative approach and the open architecture is the one that is going to win. But for pure commercial reasons, it’s because it’s cheaper, and it’s faster and it can scale.

Jamie: Great. I mean, I guess, when you’re looking at governmental level, there’s the short term thinking that’s creeping in about being able to make policy announcements and heads can activity targets, which is creating the short term thinking to go with the usual subjects, the usual vendors rather than what sounds like the long term direction of the industry. So you’ve done a really good job of articulating the kind of importance around diversifying that supply chain, but you also talk about densifying. Could you talk about that on why it’s as important as diversification in networks and supply chains

Maria: So in terms of the number of equipment vendors that we have controlling communication systems, right now, I think for control over 98% of the networks in the world, right? So we need more of those, we need smaller and larger and put their heads against each other. So that innovation spawns up and, and we have more options to go out and decide for. And this is a concept that it’s not me talking about it. It’s the UK Government who’s putting that term densification of the supply chain, the Department of digital DCMS and an off comm are working together on these arms because they see that it’s necessary to bring more innovation, first of all, to drive costs down. Second of all, to reduce dependency on these large number of equipment vendors, and that’s the densification side we need more of what already exists. And then that diversification current, it means that we need new players that contribute with infrastructure. We know that now, there is no case for infrastructure investment for mobile network operators, given the current state of revenues and the uncertainty on how 5g is going to be used. So the diversification means that more players need to come in into this supply chain and build networks and there is where we come in. We say yes, you can do that. You can ask the public authority, you can deploy your network and offer it to mobile network operators to to use it and that’s not new. Actually, we have seen how neutral hosts have existed. fibre networks exist in that way, right. I mean, there are companies like at fibre, community fibre, they deploy fibre and they offer these assets to operators to use them right In a sense, the diversification means that more players need to come in and invest in infrastructure.

Jamie: Great. And so what is the new approach that you’re advocating for at Weaver?

Maria: It’s what we call the marketplace of connectivity assets. And essentially, is that, given the situation that we have been discussing that it’s, we need diversification and diversification. And there is still a big problem of integration of all these assets. What we do is we create the software layer that basically enables a marketplace of connectivity assets, right? So we need together all these different components, all these new players contributing with islands of infrastructure, and as well this interoperability across multiple equipment vendors and technologies together into a pool of assets. And then on the demand side seats the service provider who taps into this marketplace and access the network as a service with decoupling the the ownership of the infrastructure with the service being provisioned, right? So that’s our approach to connectivity. It’s completely detach yourself from the whoever is investing in infrastructure from whoever is providing a service, and find a common place where all these assets can be integrated and used by service providers to expand the reach of their networks.

Jamie: In that context, how do you leverage blockchain technologies and I know you’ve also been considering the role of tokenization presumably to help kind of coordinate this network, but could you talk us through how you’re leveraging blockchain the kind of implementations that you’re looking at and the role of tokenization.

Maria: so in terms of the blockchain component, it’s placed The role of a governance entity in the network, right? We create these marketplace of connectivity assets. But me as someone that wants to access resources from another network, I don’t have to trust you. I don’t have to even know you. I just need to make sure that what you contribute to the network is validated, and that there is certain level of assurances that I can access it and then there is the finality of payment of the access of that asset, right. There is a reputation and go to it, and there will be multiple angles to it. For us. The blockchain layer is something that needs to be built. After we get into we pass the trials face. Because, as you well said and pointed out at the beginning of this conversation is that we are a very unique Web 3 project. We are using a technology to solve problems that exist In a wider technological ecosystem, there are multiple factors that influence this network. And if our prime objective is to swap this bilateral decision making to multilateral decision making using a blockchain as a governance layer, we have to understand very well how these decision making plays a role within the peer to peer network. So that’s something that the technical team decided to do very early on, on the project and, and I fully think it was the right decision and it’s to understand that blockchain will play a role but not settle for a technology from the very beginning and start from the ground up and build a strong peer to peer layer and then go up. What we do understand is that a decentralised governance that incentivizes good approaches in the network is important because communications infrastructures are very need to be very reliable. And that reliability needs to be linked to trust model in the network.

Jamie: Yeah, you know, we’re seeing this increasingly more. And obviously, this is something that we do champion at the accelerator is that these kind of technical decisions want to start hard coding decisions around governance, you really want to be sure that you’ve kind of validated some of those assumptions. Otherwise, you’re building a very kind of fragile network that will break at some point. So the approach that you’re taking, which is to kind of put in place large scale test environments with the stakeholders understand how the system functions, and then look at how you can deploy blockchain like technologies in order to optimise them better coordinate them is, I think, the right approach. Now you are whilst you’re an early stage startup, and as you’ve just alluded to, the kind of Technology Roadmap is if you Look at it in the context of his overall lifecycle still in its infancy, although I know you’ve built a hell of a lot of technology already, you have begun a number of what you call test bets, both with regional public authorities in the UK, but also the European Space Agency. Could you talk us through those projects, what’s involved in the kind of stages that there are.

Maria: So in terms of how we organise the pilots and the work that we are going to do in the next year and a half, two years, we have a strong link between the technical development and the commercial and how the the ecosystem is evolving, it’s really important that we stay grounded in what the industry will need. And an example of that is that while the team was working on the need of these messaging system to interconnect and make communication across different types of infrastructure and technologies, we worked on a project on it The Kickstarter project for the European Space Agency together with data Allah whom you know very well. And we’re attack which is a startup working on the space industry. And we used the very first proof of concept of the messaging system called wire mq to route messages across an IoT network and use a satellite link as a as a gateway to send messages. The product for these seeds developed and created by data Allah, and it’s a truck and trust. So it’s named to try contrast aids for supply chain management and humanitarian cases. And now we are applying for further funding to move this into a larger demonstration project where we create light wire mq, which is the use of the application of the messaging system for hardware constraints devices, which means IoT devices and satellite transmitters, in the same line, for large infrastructure management, and for The precisely creating the marketplace of communications, we engage very much with the private and the public sector within the UK. First of all, because the public sector has a vested interest in understanding which technologies and what kind of innovation is being done in the space to facilitate that strategy to be realised. And on the other hand, the private sector can benefit from pollution like ours. So we engage with public authorities to explain them that there is an alternative to engaging with a mobile network operator to the prey network. But then they can do these infrastructure investment on their own and cover some of their needs as a public authority by using the network for public services by ensuring that all these economical and societal benefits of having the citizens connected, are met and then provide a viable return on investment with this infrastructure bike. validating the concept of of the marketplace together with them. And another angle that we’re looking at, from the commercial perspective is the use of our platform to streamline and networking a box concept. And what this means is that anyone that wants to deploy your network can use this platform as the glue. And by going to an equipment vendor and connecting it to the network and using a discipline play. And that’s something we have recently partnered with a company in Germany to together create what we call these 5g autofocus solution, or it’s streamlined for verticals to be able to deploy these these networks.

Jamie: And so you know, when you’re talking to all these different stakeholders from the European Space Agency down to a regional public authority, obviously there is going to be a gulf in understand thing of technology. So is blockchain a point of friction? If you start to try to explain the underlying technologies that make this possible? Do you abstract that away in certain conversations? You know, are you perceived as a blockchain company or a Web 3 company? Or how do you approach that go to market and communicating with different levels of sophistication with stakeholders and customers?

Maria: That’s an interesting question. I think that from from my time at the lab, and and working with industries, it was always I had to change the way I formulated my narrative with people. I remember once asking an actor, how much latency do you tolerate? And he looked at me and he was like, What are you talking about? Like, what is latency? And I yeah, milliseconds, he’s like, I don’t know. So I learned that the it’s important to talk about problems and solutions. Instead of Features at the same time, right? So, blockchain is just a way of solving a problem. And the way we talk with the stakeholders is about how we solve their problems and their headaches. And we might not get into the technical intricacies of it ever, we would just offer a solution to whatever the the problem that exists in the wide range of stakeholder engagement, right? A central government has a different problem than a local authority. And a private entity has a different problem and then another one. So it’s about not talking about features, but talking about solutions.

Jamie: Great, Maria, it’s been wonderful having you on the show really good to hear your progress. I can say, you know, during the accelerator program you and the team were a pleasure to work with and I think, an Outlier. We’re really excited to see people and propositions like you guys coming to market leveraging this technology and applying it to in really important societal problems, but in a way By making it more accessible as we were just talking to a wider number of different stakeholders. So thank you for coming on and good luck with the next steps.

Maria: Thank you very much.

Jamie: If you enjoyed today’s podcast please make sure you subscribe rate and share your feedback to help us reach as many people as possible with the important mission of Web 3.