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Network of choice

As telecommunications operator MTN South Africa continues on the path of innovation in readiness for 5G rollout across South Africa, Intelligent CIO Africa, recently sat with Giovanni Chiarelli, Chief Technology and Information Officer at MTN South Africa, who addressed several new initiatives the telco was rolling out and why MTN remains the network of choice for its 30 million customers in South Africa.

MTN Group Limited, is a South African multinational mobile telecommunications company, operating in many African, Middle East and Asian countries. Headquartered in Johannesburg, MTN Group has over 30 million customers in South Africa alone.

Founded in 1994 as M-Cell, the telecoms provider has grown its operations across several African, Middle East and Asian countries and to date, it is operating in 21 countries in three regions. MTN South Africa’s competitors in include Vodacom, Cell C and Telkom Mobile.

Intelligent CIO Africa recently spoke to Giovanni Chiarelli, Chief Technology and Information Officer at MTN South Africa to find out how the company is continuing on the path of innovation as it pushes to be the network of choice for millions of customers in South Africa across residential, enterprise, wholesale segments.

Talk us through your role as Chief Technology and Information Officer (CTIO) at MTN South Africa?

As CTIO I lead the Network and Information Technology systems in MTN South Africa. In essence, the entire value chain from planning, to operations of the technical solutions which provide telecommunication services to more than 30 million customers in South Africa across residential, enterprise, wholesale segments. This ensures that customers enjoy the benefit of a modern connected life by providing state-of-the-art network and IT solutions.

I am supported by a very strong technology leadership team who look-after various functions, including Information Technology, Network Engineering, Network Deployment, Network Operations and Technology Enterprise Services teams.

Since taking over in your role, how have you guided your Technology team to put technology at the heart of delivering the business objectives for MTN South Africa?

When I joined MTN South Africa at the end of 2016, telecommunications operators were facing various challenges including the public outcry about the cost to communicate, unreliable network performance and poor investment in rural areas.

My job was to ensure that MTN South Africa becomes a network of choice to all South Africans and in order to do this, bold decisions needed to be taken.

At that time, we embarked on an extensive turnaround and developed a plan base ‘Fix’ phase was mostly centred on regaining network competitiveness through a clear prioritisation of the initiatives, re-definition of customer-centric indicators for the technology performance and rebuilding the technology leadership.

During that phase we upgraded the MTN network seeing MTN attaining the largest network rollout to date. Our focus was on creating the very best network experience for our customers. Our dual data strategy (focusing on 3G and 4G mobile technologies) has driven significant coverage improvements over the past years, while we also focused on improving our voice quality. It has been challenging to manage legacy mobile technologies, while deploying new technologies, in the spectrum-constrained environment within which we operate.

In order to achieve the network experience that have been highlighted in the MyBroadband Mobile Network Quality Report, along with other independent benchmarking providers (P3/Umlaut, Ookla, Tutela, OpenSignal), significant investment had to take place in a well-balanced combination of innovation, planning and deployment. We worked on (amongst others) our radio design, technology features (LTE 900MHz coverage layer, 4×4 MIMO on LTE, LTE Carrier Aggregation, LTE 256QAM modulation support), increasing radio base station backhaul capacity, core transport upgrades and IP data network capacity expansions. This has contributed to an increase in 4G population coverage to 97% across the country.

Best customer experience is a key strategic pillar for MTN and as such this forms part of any network strategy we implement. Knowing that the quality of our network has been tested across the country and has again been found to be delivering the value we have promised our customers, further bolsters our commitment and desire to keep connecting the unconnected. We are proud and heartened that our efforts are truly connecting South Africans to the digital world they deserve. MTN’s investment of over R50 billion (US$3.36 billion) to deliver high performance networks over the past five years – it is this investment that has helped us achieve over 97% 4G coverage across South Africa to deliver best network experience to our customers.

What are some of the technology initiatives, projects and implementations have you overseen since taking on your role as CTIO at MTN South Africa?

This item is well linked to the main programmes that have characterised the “Build” phase (2019-2020) of our technology journey.

Among the major programmes that we have embarked on in 2019, the MONZA programme (Modernisation of Access network in South Africa) is a crucial one. MONZA is a US$1 billion project aimed at upgrading our network infrastructure deploying new cutting-edge technology. Key achievements include increasing LTE coverage to 96% of the population, enablement of 5G and new spectrum bands, deployment of customer experience management (CEM) platform and further extension of our national long-distance fibre network.

In parallel, we commenced a large multi-year transformation programme in the IT space (Siyakhula programme) to re-design the customer journeys, digitise our commercial channels and consolidate the enterprise product catalogue. This has been realised with the implementation of a full newly branded IT stack. The first phase catered for our consumer post-paid segment and has just been concluded.

Another thing that needed intervention was on the Business Intelligence domain. We launched the EVA programme to transform our data universe and migrate it in full to a Big Data platform which is going to be a core enabler for MTN’s data strategy.

On top of that, a decisive step ahead was taken with the creation of the Technology enterprise services based on a converged approach for mobile and fixed line product offering to the enterprise market.

In the digital platforms domain, we have implemented the new solution for MTN Mobile Money (MoMo) and fully integrated the rich media services in our customer journeys.

In addition, we completely digitised the MTN workplaces. This programme was launched in 2019 but it has been subject to a tremendous acceleration in the first quarter of 2020 with the pandemic and the consequent lockdown. In less than 10 days we fully enabled more than 3,000 colleagues to work from home without any business disruption.

Lastly, the information security capabilities have been strengthened via the so-called Marshall plan, a joint initiative with the other MTN operating companies.

The role of a CTIO has evolved over the years with more C-level and business line executives getting involved in making IT decisions and formulating the overall technology strategy. How hard or easy is it for you to get the correct support and buy-in from your peers at MTN South Africa?

The role of technology in the business is evolving. What used to be a commodity has become one of the most important pillars of any company. This is even more prominent in a market where everything from connectivity to building business knowledge is proving useless without the right technological implementations. But navigating it also requires a firm footing in the business side of things.

In this new context, the CTIO has a double role, as enabler of the new business challenges faced in the digital era and company advisor on technology innovation that can transform and make more resilient the business itself. The CTIO needs deep technical skills balanced with the ability to speak an accessible language with the rest of the company and the agility to deal with strategic and operational items at the same time.

Which telecoms equipment vendors is MTN South Africa working with to rollout its 5G network?

The MTN network architecture is based on state-of-art elements from the top technology providers Huawei, Ericsson, ZTE and Cisco.

Talk us through what the rollout of 5G will mean for MTN customers and what sort of services can they expect from your company that they are currently not getting?

In June this year MTN launched 5G in various cities across the country, for MTN we believe that this is the first step towards our digital revolution with the next generation of telecommunications technology, demonstrating to all South Africans that 5G is no longer just an idea – it is here, it works and it has the capacity to bring about exponential improvements to our economy and to the lives of the people we serve.

The launch came on the back of government’s allocation of temporary spectrum but is also the culmination of extensive 5G trials and testing that we have been conducting over the last two years.

What impact will the rollout of 5G networks across South Africa have on MTN’s Digital Transformation journey?

For the past two years we have been actively innovating around the potential of 5G, using different bands and various vendors and across different platforms and devices, to ensure MTN South Africa can maintain leadership in 5G.

Our 5G strategy has been years in the making and we are confident that we have built a strong foundation to grow and support our 5G ecosystem to deliver an exceptional experience for our customers.

How is MTN South Africa preparing for 5G rollout when ICASA auction 5G spectrum in March 2021?

One of the key innovations driving the broad rollout by MTN has been a strategic approach to Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS), as these deployments overcome the challenges of lack of dedicated 5G spectrum.

MTN has delivered 5G connectivity on four different spectral bands namely:

  • 3.5 GHz at more than 100 sites: This is the ideal spectrum band for 5G, known as the “Golden Band” which offers a truly world-class 5G experience with both faster speeds and low latencies. MTN has deployed sites in the 3.5 GHz band in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Bloemfontein.

We are also proud to deploy 5G at selected MTN stores in the 5G clusters where we have deployed 5G. Due to the frequencies these 5G technologies operate in, indoor penetration is constrained and now customers can experience 5G at flagship MTN stores.

  • 2100MHz and 1800MHz: MTN SA is introducing the re-farming of some 4G spectrum to allow us to run 4G and 5G spectrum, at the same time, in the same band.

This allows for easier migration of network technology from LTE to 5G. It also allows us to deploy 5G using existing spectrum assets in the absence of additional high demand spectrum. MTN has deployed 5G sites on 2100MHz in Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth.

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