CBDCs: From the “Hype” to the “How” of Making Financial Inclusion a Reality – Part 2

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In our recent survey of over 1,600 financial leaders across 22 countries, we uncovered some pretty astounding insights: A whopping 85% of payment leaders at financial institutions globally think their country will launch a digital currency in the next four years. 

If these last two years in a pandemic have taught us anything, it’s that time flies. So this begs the question: What needs to happen between now and four years from now in order to make those launches possible? It turns out there’s quite a bit to consider, not only as central bankers and commercial bankers, but as individuals as well.

In our first post on this topic, we discussed why the term “financial inclusion” has become such a buzzword when talking about Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs), and how we at Ripple succinctly define it (hint: making financial services available to people who don’t have access to them today). While the insight gleaned from our research is promising and the uptick in global CBDC exploration encouraging, there is still much to be addressed in regards to how the implementation of these digital currencies will impact society, and what primary hurdles we need to collectively overcome in order to achieve that vision of a more financially inclusive future. 

Key Use Cases: A Quick Recap

As a refresher, in the first post we identified three primary use cases where we see CBDCs having the biggest immediate impact on financial inclusion across the payments and financial landscape: cross-border remittances, access to peer-to-peer (P2P) loans, and the ability to establish credit history. 

If properly planned for and implemented, the application of digital currency technology to these use cases has the potential to dramatically change the landscape for the better, making the world a more accessible and inclusive place. Across all of these use cases, however, there is a consistent set of practical hurdles to solve: education, user experience, identity, offline access and security. In the first post, we covered education and user experience, so let’s dive into identity, offline access and security, and how CBDCs can help clear these hurdles.

Key Hurdles to Implementation: Going Beyond the Hype

Identity

Developed countries require a national identity to open a bank account, which poses inclusivity problems in and of itself. For citizens who don’t have a family name, a passport, a driver’s license or any other form of identification, this presents a seemingly insurmountable hurdle. We need non-traditional ways of establishing identity for those people to gain access to financial services. With the use of a CBDC, those individuals would have the ability to be associated with a digital wallet, allowing them to meet basic Know Your Customer (KYC) requirements for identity verification. For example, in places where mobile phone usage is high but access to financial services is low, leveraging registered SIM cards and mobile phones as a way of proving identity for payments without a traditional ID number could help create a threshold to meet these requirements.

Even in countries like the US, there is ample opportunity for digital currency-backed solutions to improve current processes related to payments and identity. In the case of the pandemic, governments around the world were challenged to extend stimulus funds to those without bank accounts or because of technology limitations. Funds were delayed, or had to be issued by paper check—or people slipped through the cracks altogether. With a CBDC, stimulus monies could be distributed instantly and directly to every citizen with a mobile phone—regardless of bank account or ID status—via a digital wallet using similar SIM card/mobile methods.

Offline Access

In order to access and use CBDCs, internet access is required. CBDC usage will grow with internet usage through mobile devices, especially given the increasing rate of smartphone penetration throughout the world. However, implementing critical telecommunications infrastructure won’t be enough to match the pace of innovation needed to ensure constantly available internet access on a 24/7 basis. This goes for both developing nations and countries like the US, where currently 7% of all Americans say they don’t use the internet

CBDC platform design needs to consider offline access. Having internet access as a prerequisite to success may harm CBDC adoption and usage, both for those without regular access to the internet and for instances where unexpected power outages occur or devices run out of battery, for example. 

With this in mind, CBDCs that provide alternate solutions—particularly those that don’t require constant charging and can run without a direct power source or internet connection for consecutive days or weeks—and can accommodate offline scenarios will be critical to implementation. One example of how to solve for offline access could be a solution that mirrors the Indian e-Rupi, which leverages digital voucher mechanisms such as QR codes that can be printed offline and scanned to make retail purchases.

This is one idea of many being piloted, and we believe even better solutions will surface. As overall CBDC adoption and usage continues to grow, it will be critical for central banks and governments to proactively think about how to enable offline access, built in by design.

Security

While the use of digital currencies and digital wallets holds a lot of promise for financial inclusion, it also poses potential security risks. With a bigger chunk of the global population making payments, transferring funds, and managing finances on their mobile devices, new vulnerabilities arise. 

These security breaches can come in both physical and digital form. For example, simply leaving your phone at a restaurant or other public place, or having it stolen on public transportation. Virtual risks can include anything from phishing scams and social engineering hacks, to Denial-of-Service (DoS) and double-spend attacks. While a lot of people already use financial apps on their mobile devices and are aware of these risks, many do not and this will likely be a barrier to entry for those people. 

Luckily there are ways to avoid and mitigate these risks with the use of CBDCs. One such solution is a blockchain-based CBDC that uses a multi-signature (“multi-sig”) wallet. This means at least two other trusted parties would hold credentials to that same wallet to help ensure no unauthorized use or access. These other trusted parties could be the central bank itself and/or family members or other contacts of the mobile device owner. Additionally, by imposing spending limits and methods to track transaction frequency when the CBDC user is offline, the impact of such attacks would be greatly reduced.

Paving a Path Forward

While there is work to be done to pave the way for a CBDC-driven future, the journey ahead is an exciting one and undoubtedly promises a more inclusive, sustainable financial system. Digital currencies offer many additional benefits that are currently unmatched in today’s financial landscape, and we’re confident that central banks, commercial banks, and society as a whole can work together to overcome the hurdles and create a clear path forward as we continue to prove out the technology, pilot projects around the world, and ensure equal and equitable access.

Download our CBDC whitepaper to learn more.

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