Taking MTC worldwide

Kuwaiti mobile operator MTC Group doesn’t want to be known solely as a regional telecom powerhouse. As CIO Mohammed Rafi explains, it has ambitous plans to be a global leader

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By  Peter Branton Published  April 9, 2006

|~|Rafi5main.jpg|~|Rafi emphasised the need to set up guidelines designed to bring MTC’s acquired operators into the organisation’s operation structure.|~|With last year’s acquisition of pan-African operator Celtel under its belt, MTC Group is openly cranking up its aggressive expansion plans in 2006 with a strong bid for Egypt’s third GSM licence currently under review. Fast becoming one of the most talked about telecom operators in the Middle East business community, for MTC this is not enough. The Kuwaiti mobile operator wants to go global. “Overall, our customer base of MTC is now 15 million but our target is almost double that,” proclaims Mohammed Rafi, CIO of the MTC Group, who has the task of realigning the company’s various IT operations under one framework. “This [expansion] is part of our overall plan. Our strategy is to draw on a model of 3 x 3 x 3: the first three years we have been active in the Middle East region, the next three pan-regional [across sub-Saharan Africa] — and the next three we aim to be global. So we are aligning the whole organisation to meet that challenge,” he says. With such a rapid period of expansion taking place, one of the key components of meeting that ambitious challenge is addressing the IT operations and infrastructures of the MTC Group. Rafi explains to IT Weekly below why MTC Group has embarked on a sweeping restructuring of its business, what the company intends to do to make its IT unit an efficient contributor to the bottom line of its business, and how IT can enable MTC to take on the world. What does the role of the CIO entail within such a large company? We have created a group structure for the organisation to bring all of our operations under a single umbrella. That means a single set of businesses, business activity, branding, and technology for the network side. And we see the IT side playing a major role in the future. So we’ve launched a group initiative in this field and now have seven people devoted to IT at the group level. It’s in the early stages, but we are looking at the IT requirements right across the group. The main focus is in the Middle East and then we have a CelTel subsidiary, looking after sub-Saharan Africa. If we bring these together we are looking at synergies in the areas of capital expenditure (CAPEX), optimisation, getting best value in every area and making sure we have synergies in terms of the types of systems we use across the groups. So we are setting up the strategy, and the system, along with the selection criterias, and all of the processes that need to be done in a standard manner across the group. Each of the operations will then go out and implement those strategies. If this is the case, are all of the systems disparate, then? At the moment, yes. Where our operators have a green-field licence we have a synergy, so they have the same infrastructure, same applications, same organisation structure, and so on. But where we have acquired operators, then we need to bring them into our operation structure. To do that, we are setting up the appropriate guidelines. Ideally, business-wise, we are aligning the IT along with the products and services. Three main areas are being created: the technology side, the network infrastructure and the mobile business — aligning the IT to meet those areas and fit in with the business. Can you tell us about your most up-to-date IT infrastructure [in Bahrain]: who your partners are and which vendors you use? We didn’t want to build up a huge IT organisation. So from day one we have optimised and focused on the business and have outsourced the IT operations and technical support. On the infrastructure side we have vendors such as Cisco and Sun Microsystems, with some HP equipment in there. Cisco is providing all the networking equipment and an internet protocol (IP)-based contact centre. We have IP telephony across all of our sales outlets and voice over IP (VoIP) across all of our own internal networks. We then build out with people like Sun for the latest hardware and high-end servers, right across the board to meet various requirements. We then have a whole load of applications coming in from people like ITS. These applications are coming in to integrate with Nokia, Siemens, Motorola, and a variety of value-added service providers, which MTC has chosen. We will build on those relationships in order to expand. The systems that are deployed at our African operations are a different model because they run on pre-pay, and are therefore geared to that market. For the time being, we will build hosted services where we can actually centralise and provide services to all of the operators in the group. So we are looking at those scenarios and looking at how best we can maximise return on investments (ROIs) for any new services that are going to be launched. But wherever possible — as we are adopting new technology — it will be based on the latest architectures we are putting together: component-based architecture with best-of-breed applications. Not to be stuck with legacy systems is important along with providing the flexibility for products to be created in an innovative manner. How heavily are you investing in IT at the moment? We have major projects going on in almost every operator. Iraq is a big growth area, with no fixed line telephony. The mobile operators are doing quite well there, but we have some major challenges. MTC provides services in and outside of Iraq for the IT systems. Those are expanding quite a lot and there is a lot of investment going on to match the supplier subscriber growth. In Kuwait we have a major overhaul of the IT infrastructu- res: we are replacing them with the latest systems from Sun, EMC for storage, Cisco for the network side. We are also building up a disaster recovery site in Kuwait for business continuity, and this is a brand new area that we are building up. It will be a Gulf services support centre and a fairly large IT set-up, with the capacity to cater for each one of these operators in the event of a problem with their IT systems. Initially we are looking at just safeguarding some of their assets in terms of information, but over the long term it will be optimising the network, as well as the IT infrastructure. It will also lead into a hosting environment at some stage. What is the motivation behind MTC setting up a disaster recovery centre? One of the main areas you look at is your information. Information is the core of your business and having a disruption in our IT systems is something that we cannot afford. With network services, if there is a disruption there are dissatisfied customers, if a customer cannot get access to a call centre, his bill or other information. Working in a customer-focused environment we have to make sure these are up and running 24/7 — available at all times. ||**|||~|Rafi1main.jpg|~|IT is very much a core part of our business, and will become a core competency, Mohammed Rafi explained. |~|Have you experienced any problems with downtime? Hardly ever, but there is always a risk. There isn’t anything major that has actually happened but we are always making sure and covering that we never get into that situation. We have a large customer base and customer satisfaction is high. What challenges do you face integrating each of the business units, in IT terms? Currently we have a fairly integrated set of products and systems in place. We are not an operator that will go out and do development ourselves. We have some legacy projects which were there in terms of in-house development, those are being rolled-out and we are taking all of our products off the shelf and integrating them so that we are best able to meet our end users needs. We have a very high level of automation in the areas of human resources (HR), finance, procurement, customer care: all aspects are fully automated. We are standardising the enterprise resource planning (ERP) suite with Oracle and in the contact centre it’s Cisco, which is rolled out across all of our sites, internet protocol (IP) based. ITS provides the customer care and billing systems. And we also have some vendors looking at solutions such as IP content charging, pre-pay charging, these added services that are coming in. We get our vendors to actually try and integrate things. We haven’t switched any vendors rec- ently: these are long-term relationships. We have introduced new vendors for certain niche applications and solutions that are coming in which enables us to come to market very quickly. We are always looking at standards-based integration and the niche solutions are all in the areas of IP. The current billing applications and rating systems were able to cater for the post-paid. Pre-pay we are moving out to niche solutions so they do their own charging and update and keep the balance. What are the difficulties of building an IT infrastructure for a telecommunications co- mpany, given that technology is your main business driver. Does it overlap? Yes. In earlier days you would find that network technologies were very much boxed into the network and infrastructure vendors, with limited IT exposure. IT has always been in the back-end of these systems. But this is changing dramatically, as the systems are changing with all the actual infrastructure vendors actually coming out; a lot of their systems are now IT-based. So IT is moving from being a back-office service provider to being in the heart of the network. With our current set-up we have a very close working relationship with our CTO and the technology group on the network side so when we go out and select applications, vendors, and products, it’s a joint effort from three parties: the business, the technology, as well as the IT. Unlike other IT environments, IT in the telco space has a much higher visibility. That being the case, part of the restructuring of the organisation is to move it from being a back office solution into the forefront. Can you envisage using IT as a profit centre? No, but it can be seen as a raw value addition to the operational side, safeguarding revenue, ensuring there is no revenue leakage. It’s critical. Savings in this area are going to be very critical for our operators in the future, as you reach saturation point. You have to go back and look at your processes, look at your systems to ensure that the- re is no loss in that environment. In the last six months MTC has come up as a case study for people such as Gartner in how we look at revenue assurance and how we are able to optimise and not lose any revenue because of the networks side or the IT systems. We have a strategic relationship with two or three vendors who are in this space — fraud management, revenue insurance, as well as the billing settlement side. Who does MTC outsource its IT operations to? We use the same infrastructure partners, and some of them are handled by ITS. Others are handled by Sun, then Cisco provides the appropriate technical services. But most of these we are actually doing on a turnkey basis. So the management, service level agreements, and operational KPI, these are still with MTC staff, and they manage those operations and relationship. But the actual day-to-day operations we have outsourced. How many IT staff do you have in each operation? It varies between each operation: between 50-75 per operator, depending on size. At the Group level we are a very lean organisation, with seven people. We are focusing on the senior people, some are on the board, some are seconded from other operations. Anything that we actually want to build up, we are operating as a matrix organisation, which means when we create a project, we pull in people from some other operation sponsored by the group, they come in do the job and then go back to their own individual operator. How important is security for MTC and its different IT infrastructures? Security is very important. We have a dedicated group of people who are looking at this from all aspects. Obviously all of our networks are protected with the traditional firewalls and gateways. We are putting a higher emphasis on that to make sure that we take security side-by-side with all the IT operations, so that there is an external body looking at this all the time and auditing. What are the big IT projects taking place within MTC at the moment and near future? Over the next two years we are going to be revamping all of the IT architectures so we are in position to take advantage of our next-generation networks, with next-generation operation support systems. This is going to happen project by project. So every project we are undertaking is building on the infrastructure, application architecture, technology architecture and processes. The business processes are being realigned so that we are building on top of the standards with a process framework, from a service delivery side, and from an IT perspective with ITIL (information technology infrastructure library). All of these standards are being implemented —but not in a big bang approach. The operators know the goal they have to reach — building all of the appropriate interfaces and integration requirements — this is happening as an initiative from the group level and it is being undertaken within each operator at different stages. If you look at the IT budgets they are running into tens of millions of dollars for each operator and most of their focus is going to be in aligning the business with their IT systems. So overall, what it MTC’s IT vision for the near future? What we are keen to emphasis is that IT is very much a core part of our business. Over the next few years I think you will find it becomes a core competency that people will look at, and enhance its value addition, moving away from the traditional IT of boxes and application systems into the real business arena. It will make us more business-focused than just IT-focused systems. IT is coming in from a service delivery standpoint. Of the next two years we want to make sure that our IT operations are geared and standardised so they work in a structured manner to have this internal service level agreement (SLA) guidelines, so that we are running it as a business. Each of our partners are assisting us in this case, knowing this is the goal we have. For each operator we have a Business Excellence Unit and it is part of their responsibility to make sure all of the business processes are fine-tuned and up-to-date, and aligned with how we actually use the systems. ||**||

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