The business case for telco modernisation

Joanne Carew
By Joanne Carew, ITWeb Cape-based contributor.
Johannesburg, 29 Apr 2024
Dalia Nabil, Nokia
Dalia Nabil, Nokia

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to telco modernisation. Zoltan Miklos, GM for network planning at MTN, says that telecommunications companies modernise for different reasons – to introduce new features and functionality, or improve network capacity, deploy new architectures, improve efficiencies, or offer advanced capabilities. Given these priorities, it can be difficult to decide where to start and where to focus your attention because technologies are advancing and improving all the time.

Miklos says making these decisions demands that telcos consider their investments and the equipment they deploy and whether or not that equipment will be outdated before it reaches end-of-useful-life. One of the metrics the mobile network operator tracks is return on invested capital. When it puts a piece of equipment into the network, it has to make sure that it generates a positive return on investment. “Should a network element on your network no longer be supported, and it fails, you’ve got a much bigger issue to deal with because you’re going to struggle to get it up and running again,” he says.

As complexity rises in networks, conventional security methods are no longer a match to modern-day threats, by making it harder to avoid making errors that hackers can exploit.

Dalia Nabil, Nokia

As for gaining a competitive edge, telcos are increasingly using emerging technologies like AI to improve user experience, reduce costs and expand their offerings. For MTN, this means utilising advanced analytics and AI capabilities for planning and managing the network. For example, the telco has developed AI models to support capacity planning at a site and sector level in order to understand where capacity is required to track data growth. MTN is also deploying newer network technologies that automate routing of traffic based on link failures or congestion. An Open Radio Access Network (O-RAN) presents another opportunity for telcos to modernise.

MTN is playing around with this approach, having tested these technologies at its reference facility on 14th Avenue in Randburg and in the live network. “The technology is still maturing and we will continue testing the ability to match current incumbent radio vendor capabilities,” Miklos says.

With industry insiders predicting that the average data traffic per smartphone is projected to grow from 31GB per month in 2023 to around 75GB per month in 2029, modern telcos are turning to cloud-based infrastructure and applications to achieve the scalability and efficiencies they need. According to Miklos, MTN is deploying commercial off-the-shelf hardware in the core network to support applications that only run on cloud-based architectures. The business has a multiyear plan to migrate applications from physical appliances to cloud-based infrastructure and have also modelled moving traffic off-premises into third party cloud infrastructure, he says. “However, this is complicated due to data volumes and other considerations, which means that keeping these capabilities on-premises is often preferred.”

In with the new

Telcos also need to focus on security, says Nokia’s MEA business applications senior director for cloud and network services, Dalia Nabil. When you take a close look at recent cyber attacks, you quickly notice that network-related cybersecurity challenges come in many forms. Network modernisation dramatically increases the attack surface, she says. “As complexity rises in networks, conventional security methods are no longer a match to modern-day threats, making it harder to avoid making errors that hackers can exploit.”

Retiring existing infrastructure isn’t as simple as recovering one network element and replacing it with another. Here, the move to 5G serves as a prime example of just how complex it can be to upgrade your old technology and deploy new capabilities and features into the network. With 5G, operators have had to think about the modernisation of the radio access network (RAN), of their backhaul capacity from the site to the mobile core; 5G also calls for modernisation and capacity upgrades to the mobile core network, as well as the provisioning and billing systems, which run in the background and customers don’t even see. And then there are all the tools that are needed to support these networks – which include performance and automation tools. Many of the new functions and use cases that accompany 5G demand higher capabilities, which can only be achieved using cloud-based architectures. Every aspect of the network needs to be improved and upgraded with a move to 5G. Modernisation projects typically span several years, which is why planning and creating detailed technology roadmaps is so important. “They say measure twice and cut once and this sentiment is particularly relevant when it comes to telecoms modernisation,” Nabil says.


In February, Capitec’s CTO, Andrew Baker, shared via LinkedIn that the bank had just taken delivery of their Low Earth Orbital (LEO) satellite network infrastructure and, within a matter of hours, were already bouncing encrypted network traffic off satellites. Innovations like this, said Baker, hold incredible potential for Africa, where poor infrastructure and power issues currently prevent banks from providing reliable services to their clients.

LEO satellite solutions, including those offered by Amazon’s Project Kuiper and SpaceX’s Starlink, promise to connect every corner of the planet. Satellites can reach people living in the most remote areas, where terrestrial telecommunications infrastructure is too expensive, and too impractical, to deploy. But are they a threat to mobile operators? NEC XON’s Wally Beelders believes that, much like any other new and disruptive technology, satellite-based internet services are forcing the incumbents to reassess and re-evaluate the investments they make in traditional infrastructure. In fact, some internet service providers and telcos are already leveraging satellite channels as a backup to terrestrial routes, and to deliver more comprehensive service coverage.

Talk of industry disruption often pits one business model/technology against another. But modern telcos have to get comfortable adopting a wide range of strategies, which now includes collaborating with satellite providers and incorporating satellite technology into their networks to expand their reach.

But satellites certainly aren’t a connectivity silver bullet. As Jonathan Duncan from Vertiv explains, satellite solutions are more expensive than terrestrial-based solutions. Additionally, while the radio waves that are sent via a satellite are moving at the speed of light, they have to travel greater distances, which means that the levels of latency are much higher than that of terrestrial providers. According to Gartner, the telecom industry has to embrace new processes and technologies so that it can be more customer-centric than ever before. As part of this, modern telcos have to shift their strategies to deliver best-in-class services and experiences and, for many, satellites have become a key part of these efforts.

If replacing old tech was easy, all legacy systems would have been retired a very long time ago, says Vino Govender, commercial director at Tawara. Retiring legacy infrastructure requires planning, he says. This audit phase demands that telcos look at their existing state, their desired state and the process of making the transition from the one to the other. Architecture modernisation and legacy retirement initiatives should be based on budgets, skills, capacity and capability/competency requirements. Business risk and governance impact are other important considerations. If there are any simple processes and repetitive tasks that can be automated, this should be prioritised, says Govender.

And while telcos are creating modernisation roadmaps and planning how they will make way for the deployment of the newest and most advanced technologies, there are still customers using 3G, and even 2G. You have to turn off legacy technologies to make space for more efficient technologies, says Miklos. But getting this right demands that you take the time to bring the people who still rely on legacy services along with you on the journey.


For Africa Analysis’ Dobek Pather, the main modernisation challenges facing local telcos revolve around finance, uptake and use of services and regulation.

#1 Financing: Securing finance for technology/network upgrades and expansion into new geographic areas is difficult as technology refresh cycles become shorter, telecoms services become increasingly commoditised, and more demands are placed on the same pool of money. For example, the need to provide alternative sources of power and additional security are costing some of the large mobile network operators several billion rand every year. This is money that could have been invested in the deployment of new technologies and addressing underserved areas more effectively.

#2 Uptake and use of services: Operators need to realise a return on their investments within a “reasonable” timeframe. Limited uptake and use of services make it difficult for operators to deploy new technologies to all market segments. One reason for a lower uptake of new services can stem from limited use cases (or users don’t see a need for a new service). In South Africa, poor economic performance and high unemployment mean that many can’t afford to use new and advanced services.

#3 Regulation: Regulation has not evolved at the same pace as technology. While some improvements have been made, there is still plenty of room for regulatory processes to be refined to achieve more efficient technology deployment. Greater coordination across the three levels of government – national, provincial and local – is important.


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