Managing the network through COVID-19
An interview with MTN Chief Technical Officer (CTO), Mohammed Rufai, on the impact that COVID-19 has had on network operations and the steps that he has taken to ensure stable services.
- You are the Chief Technical Officer of MTN, could you give us an insight into what that means?Sure, it means that I am responsible for network planning, maintenance and expansion. It is my job to ensure that all facets of our network are operational and optimised at all times. That also includes overseeing our network’s capital expenditure programmes to expand and improve the network, which is really the core of the business that we run. We must continue to be at the forefront of technology, of course, unless you are up to date, you don’t have the most attractive offerings to subscribers. At MTN, we have consistently tried to lead the way in terms of deployment of the latest technology, which is why my job as the CTO is very exciting!
- How has COVID-19 affected your ability to do your job?It has been one of the biggest challenges of my career. The current situation is unprecedented and telecommunications networks are immensely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Let me give you a few examples:
- How do we get telecoms engineers, equipment and supplies (diesel, spares etc) to base stations under a lockdown scenario? Can we cross state borders?
- How do we get our technical partners to carry out needed network capacity expansions and maintenance in various locations spread across the country?
- How do we manage an immediate increase in traffic across our data networks?
- How do we import the parts we need for network expansion and/or sustainability when many parts of our supply chain are also under lockdown?
- How do we manage rising costs driven by currency depreciation
- So how have you and MTN responded? Have you had to increase capacity?We have responded as comprehensively as we can. Initially, this meant radically adapting new ways of working to ensure that we could continue to maintain our network under very challenging conditions. We recognised that increased demand, especially on our data network meant we needed to accelerate the deployment of planned investments in our infrastructure to ensure we could accommodate the traffic and enable our customers to work and attend school from home.
Looking back now, I think we have always been conscious of the huge responsibility placed on our shoulders. By this, I mean how mobile networks reach well beyond urban and semi urban areas, such that not only is mobile driving growth, it is one of the most effective platforms for keeping people connected. So even before the lockdown, we had built a robust network and our efforts to improve capacity and quality across the country was evidenced by our continuous investment in network rollout and upgrades. All these gave us sufficient headroom during the lockdown. In addition, we have also been blessed with dedicated staff who are always ready to go beyond the call of duty to help increase capacity and satisfy our teeming customers. However, I must also not fail to commend the NCC for driving a collaborative approach in managing capacity constraints during the lockdown. There were also conversations on how to optimize the use of critical resources going forward.
Finally, we also recognised that lockdown conditions put many of our vulnerable customers under intense pressure financially and so we designed interventions that would meet their needs while not putting too much pressure on the network, which was under intense pressure. That included opening up SMS as a channel:
- Millions of SMS messages were sent on behalf of government;
- Over two billion SMS messages sent for free by customers.
- How much has this cost MTN?In terms of SMS provision, it depends on how you look at it. But the cost to the customer of the over 2 billion SMS messages that have been sent for free so far would have been in excess of N8 billion while the data access we are providing to specific sites is also significant in value based on usage so far.
In terms of overall impact on the business, earlier this year, we made a commitment to invest more than N500 billion in the network over the next three years. So while we are committed to continuous investment, it is important to state that as a result of the crisis and its impact, we are now focusing on core capacity and resilience related deployments.
- What do you think the biggest challenge has been for you?Naturally, the biggest challenge would be the surge in traffic particularly data, which by the way is not peculiar to MTN alone. It is a global trend due to the lockdown. Fortunately, we have multiple layers of redundancy built into our networks and some headroom. It is however, a concern not knowing the extent or duration of the restrictions we currently face. If the situation persists, it might lead to resource constraints because it might affect our ability to import equipment as and when due.
As you know, our business is highly dependent on foreign exchange, which is an area of great uncertainty. However, in the long run, working with other stakeholders, we are confident that we will optimize the use of critical resources, which is a crucial element to managing whatever lies ahead.
- Do you think the increased usage of data is here to stay? Or is this a short term issue and things will return to normal as the country opens up again?As with other countries that have gone further in the COVID-19 pandemic curve, the global trend is a gradual reduction but not to normal, though as some form of restrictions still impact demand. I do not think the volume will return to pre-COVID-19 levels as we expect more people and organizations to adopt digitization.
- How has the COVID situation affected your longer-term investment plans?The likely impact may be slight delays in roll-out due to temporary supply chain disruption, other than that we are committed to continue investing with focus on core capacity and resilience.