As the African market continues to mature, the importance of optimising and monitoring network activity is growing in line, with Astellia providing such solutions to the region ever since the firm was established in 2000.
Jean-Philippe Larvol, managing director for the Africa region at Astellia has seen the usage and application of network optimisation and customer experience solutions evolve. In the firm’s early days, the demand from African operators was for rudimentary insights into the performance of their networks, but today operators are using such technology in a far more sophisticated manner.
Larvol explains that the sheer size and diversity of the African region means that operators are able to benefit from network optimisation in a variety of ways. In the more mature markets, such as Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and South Africa, operators are no longer focused on extending their customer base but are investing in network optimisation tools that are helping them retain their customers. In less mature markets though, such as Eastern Africa, customer acquisition is still the name of the game, with great opportunity to provide basic mobile services to consumers in these countries.
Network optimisation and monitoring tools are relevant and useful throughout an operator’s entire organisation, he argues. A single network optimisation tool can be harnessed by different teams. For example, engineers can use it to troubleshoot the infrastructure and forecast the capacity needed in the future, based on the evolution of the operator’s traffic. Performance engineers can use these tools not only to monitor QoS KPIs but also to evaluate independently managed services providers. In addition, customer care agents can use the data that such solutions provide to investigate customer complaints more quickly and reduce the mean time to repair.
“One of the main issues for an operator’s customer care team is to identify what is a valid complaint and what is not,” explains Larvol. “From the first level of the customer care organisation, it is important to try to eliminate all the complaints that are not tier one. CEM tools allow customer care teams to identify the reasons of a complaint and then address the issue by pointing the customer towards the right team within the organisation.”
Furthermore, marketing departments can use such tools to analyse the browsing habits and data and voice and SMS usage of their customer base in order to segment customers based on their consumption and design compelling packages for them. And even top-level management is interested in some of the data that monitoring solutions can provide to compare how well the network is performing against expectations and financial investments.
The approach taken by many operators and vendors to the market is that Africa, along with most other emerging markets, will follow a similar trend in terms of what is happening in more mature markets, such as Western Europe and North America. There are exceptions to the rule though, with mobile money being an interesting example of a trend that first took off in Africa, which more economically developed markets are now following.
In terms of network optimisation though, African mobile network operators are very much following in the footsteps of more mature markets, according to Larvol, where the key focus is now on accelerated adoption of data services and on customer experience management (CEM).
“African operators have the same needs as those in other regions and CTOs need 360 degree visibility of the network efficiency, handset performance and subscriber usage and see how these three domains correlate with each other,” says Larvol. “However, what is complex with CEM is that it can become a huge ‘machine’, and that is the danger. Customer experience management can be very powerful but if you put too much into it then it can come inefficient.”
He says that Astellia is taking such concerns into account and seeking to offer streamlined solutions giving access to key metrics for operators to manage their network efficiently.
Another huge issue in Africa is the prevalence of “grey market” devices. Grey market products are legitimate goods that are originally intended to be sold into a different market to the ones they end up in. Smartphones, dongles and other such devices are configured to run efficiently on the spectrum that is used in a particular country, on a particular operator’s network.
“Smartphones are often coming from neighbouring countries or European countries and are configured for the first network on which they were used. If you don’t change those settings, you will not be able to benefit from another network,” says Larvol.
“Astellia is able to detect when a device has the wrong settings and inform the operator that they need to reconfigure those terminals, which they can do by sending new settings over the air. In this way, we can support operators in helping their customers use the service to its fullest potential and increase the overall user experience.”
Another challenge that African operators have faced is that some countries’ regulators have taken the curious move of offering 3G spectrum licences to new entrant operators, rather than offering them to operators that are already offering 2G services to the market.
We can find an example for this in Tunisia where the operator Tunisiana was severely impacted by the government’s decision to provide the country’s first 3G licence to new entrant Orange Tunisie in 2009. Tunisiana did not gain its 3G licence until early 2012.
“At the arrival of Orange in Tunisia, Astellia helped Tunisiana boost its 2.5G network to counteract this new entrant. Our consulting team performed several network audits for Tunisiana to make sure that their 2.5G network was optimised to provide data speeds comparable to those of the new 3G network and to help them prevent customer churn.
Larvol says that one of Astellia’s key strengths is that it has a consulting team of more than 60 telecom experts who carried out more than 4,000 audits for operators worldwide to help them boost their data and voice revenues, improve user experience, optimise network performance and reduce expenditures.
And while in Europe, LTE adoption is picking up apace, some African countries are not so far behind.
Morocco has recently launched a study for the licence of 4G; in South Africa some carriers have made pre-commercial deployments already. In Namibia, there has already been a small-scale launch, limited in terms of coverage; while Kenya’s regulator has begun private partnerships with operators to build one single infrastructure that will be used serve all of the current service providers.
“LTE is coming to Africa,” says Larvol. “Astellia is already a player in more than 20 pre- and live commercial networks around the world and we are able to help operators benchmark network infrastructure vendors for when they conduct pre-commercial tests.”
He adds that the firm is able to help operators by providing them with an independent view of the quality of services of their network, whether it is a live network or a network in a pre-commercial state.
“We are not only able to benchmark vendors but also better understand the behaviour of new technologies. LTE networks are a totally new type of architecture, different from a 2G or 3G architecture. Astellia is helping operators in every step of their LTE deployment.”