Africa’s leading service provider, MTN, is transforming into a digital platform service operator to deliver exceptional network experience to its subscribers through its long-term vision and strategic network planning.

With strong performance in 2020, MTN is the leading NPS contributor in Africa and is currently leading in 14 out of 20 markets it operates in. MTN’s Ambition 2025 strategy highlights its leadership position of leveraging cutting-edge technology solutions to transform its operations, gain new efficiencies and provide a superior customer experience to its subscribers. The initiative was formed for "building the largest and most valuable platform business with a clear focus on Africa." 

OXyGEN Framework for Greater Network Operational Efficiency 

The company also released its OXyGEN Technologies Strategic Framework in 2019 that defines its technical guidelines. As part of this program, MTN identified 28 areas of the network that it wanted to modernize and use digital capabilities over the next three to five years. Every year the company modifies the framework according to the evolving market situations. 

"Once 80% of the framework is achieved, we believe we will be quite mature in terms of digital capabilities and will be able to serve a wider range of needs of all types of customers, be it enterprise or consumers," says Amith Maharaj, MTN Group Executive, Network Design and Planning. 

In the second step of the program, MTN is targeting to gain new network efficiencies and capabilities to provide the latest 5G and mobile edge use cases to its subscribers, and reducing carbon footprints. When moving on to the transport level, it will use orchestration, full automation, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML) and self-healing technologies to improve network efficiencies. 

Well-defined strategy and planning are also helping the Chinese service providers to deliver enhanced user experience and lead in both fixed and mobile businesses. "Chinese operators used to lag behind their peers in developed countries, but in the space of a decade, they have become world-leading in both fixed and mobile businesses in terms of the size of the network and the number of subscribers. It’s exactly because of their clear strategies, focus, and strategic goals and overall planning of networks that Chinese carriers have achieved remarkable results," says Zhang Jun, Chief Consultant of Huawei Carrier Network and ex-CTO of China Telecom Shanghai. 

Jun added that while the past decade is about the fibre-based network transformation, the future decade is about the cloud-based service transformation, where the business strategies are fully implemented step by step according to plan.

Evolving networks to capture new opportunities 

The service providers across the globe are looking at growth beyond mobile because of stagnating growth and profits. New technologies like 5G, cloud and edge computing are helping them in exploring new growth opportunities. In this regard, China Telecom and MTN share common values on comprehensive and systematic cloudification and reform strategies. 

China Telecom recently released the 2030 technology white paper on cloud network integration making four strategic propositions into three phases: from 2021 to 2022, it will focus on cloud network centering, followed by a stage of network cloud merging from 2023 and 2027, and in the last step from 2028 and 2030, China Telecom plans to work on network cloud integration. 

On the other hand, MTN wants to combine its fibre assets into an infrastructure company to become a wholesale carrier of carriers. Its ultimate vision is to connect any country and any major city with one another across the entire Africa continent. 

The African service provider sees opportunities in home broadband connectivity with 5G. 5G provides the first connectivity layer to connect the home. Once big uptakes and hotspot areas can be gauged, it makes much easier to deploy fibre and migrate customers off. MTN plans to adopt the strategy in tier 2 and tier 3 OpCos, while fibre is the most pervasive option to provide home broadband in tier 1 market. The company also plans to use 4G and microwave-type solutions as a point of presence and subsequently get fibre to the respective sites as and when required. This is mainly because of the lack of formalized infrastructure in developing markets.

The importance of infrastructure planning includes planning sites, comprehensive service areas, unified optical networks and data centers. This forms the foundation to ensure a stable, reliable, flexible, and efficient network, elaborates Zhang Jun.

Network planning is crucial to MTN’s seamless operations that cover many OpCos across Africa and the Middle East. The company plans to centralize some of its capabilities, like the OSS layer and Network-as-a-Service (NaaS), to ensure consistent experience and services across the group. "This would facilitate things and provide consistency towards automation, artificial intelligence and network layer to the next level to the next generation OSS. 

The company operates in 21 countries and faces the challenge of different regulations. "Network as a service allows us to do things like spectrum sharing, helping out smaller operators in some of those markets by providing infrastructure, but also pulling spectrum to provide a consistent and good level of service," says Amith Maharaj. So network planning is quite diverse for MTN because every OpCo comes with different constraints and market reality. 

Network planning is crucial to MTN as it moves towards its goal to transform into a digital service provider. It also plays a key role in seamless and consistent management of its operations across Africa and Middle East while delivering superior digital experience to its subscribers. Other telcos must take inspiration from MTN’s strategy to accelerate digitalization with well-planned long-term network planning.