Dial B for business

A liberalised market in most Middle East countries is bringing home the need for telecoms providers to gain a competitive edge in their internal applications. Daniel Stanton finds out whether regional telcos are all talk or whether they are using IT to connect with their customers.

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By  Daniel Stanton Published  November 30, 2006

|~|Stefan-Niemicsun200.jpg|~|Niemic: Reduced time to market for new services can boost customer loyalty.|~|In a market that is becoming one of the most competitive in the Middle East, telecommunications providers are finding that they need to provide better service offerings for their customers.

New systems, such as more flexible and intelligent billing systems and customer relationship management (CRM) software, are proving to be the key to achieving this.

MTC has operations in Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and Sudan. Despite the introduction of competition to its home market of Kuwait in 1999, MTC managed to nearly double its subscription base to 1.1 million in the five years that followed. It was privatised in 2002, leading to reorganisation in many parts of the organisation, including its IT systems.

MTC Kuwait is one of the oldest mobile operators in the Middle East, having been established in 1983. However, its growth gave it some technical challenges.

"During the late 90s the billing system was replaced. However, it was not upgraded at regular intervals due to variety of business and technical reasons," says Mohammed Rafi, CIO, MTC Group.

"With the introduction of new services for prepaid and post-paid customer and the use of different application systems there is a high potential for revenue leakage. After an initial proof of concept and having identified potential revenue leakage of almost US$8m per annum, MTC undertook to implement the OneReview Revenue Assurance System from Connectiva. The system has been successfully implemented in a very short period resulting in recovery of almost US$15m of potentially lost revenue since its implementation over an 18 month period."

Rafi explains how the telco has developed its IT environment to support its business strategy. "MTC Group believes in focusing on its core business activities of a mobile operator," he says. "Accordingly, we believe in outsourcing a majority of non-core IT activities to one or more of our strategic partners which are expected to deliver operational savings in excess of 25-30% over the next three to five year period.”

MTC Group is continuously looking at areas of improvement internally in the IT departments so that they are better geared to deliver services to the end users.

"With aggressive competition in all of our operations the use of IT systems is extremely critical,” says Rafi. “Systems need to be flexible and should be able to adapt to the changes in user requirements and to help expedite new services to market. We are fine-tuning the business processes so that the business users, IT and networks are working much more closely to reduce the time to launch of new products and services.

“The cross functional activities have helped to reduce the time to market for products from three to four months down to 15-25 days in some of our operations.

"Other areas of efficiency are achieved with the use of similar systems across our operations.

“These are allowing us to standardize the reporting methods for all of our KPIs (key performance indicators) thus enabling management at the group level to proactively take action on changes in the market conditions."

MTC is currently working towards building a standards-based IT system architecture, allowing the group to adopt the latest technologies to meet business needs and keep pace with expansion.

"To cater for these major challenges we have conducted internal audits and have streamlined the solutions to be used in the future," says Rafi. "The systems and operations of each of our operators will migrate over the next two to three years to an open systems modular architecture compliant with the appropriate standards, namely eTOM (business process modelling), ITIL (operations and service delivery), and middleware/SOA (integration)."

The group has also established strategic partnerships with selected technology vendors to ensure a high level of support. "One of our strategic partners is International Turnkey Systems (ITS) which has provided their TABS solution for customer care, mediation, provisioning, rating and billing for both 2.5G and 3G services," says Rafi.

"The TABS system is being upgraded to comply with the long term goals of the MTC Group. Other strategic partners include Convergys (billing and roaming), Comptel (mediation and provisioning), and RatetIntegration (rating engine).

"MTC Group was one of the earliest adopters of IP telephony for their contact centre in the Middle East. The use of IP telephony has been rolled out across our operators using Cisco and Nortel solutions." MTC's infrastructure and network partners include Sun Microsystems, HP, Cisco, Juniper and EMC.

As telcos have moved into providing operating internet gateways, billing systems have had to cover new areas. Even though voice over IP is banned in many Middle East countries, it is likely to become more widely available in the coming years, driving demand for VoIP billing systems from companies such as REVE Systems.

Telecoms companies have also had to find a way of incorporating internet access into their billing systems, and to provide a secure environment for its internet subscribers.

LogicaCMG, a provider of solutions which cover intuitive messaging, intelligent charging, content enablement and customer intelligence management, recently warned of a new threat. SMiShing is the mobile text message equivalent of computer phishing attacks, where users are tricked into handing over valuable private information or persuaded to go to fake websites where spyware and other malicious programmes can be downloaded.

Nabil Y. Khalil, director, telecoms at LogicaCMG in the Middle East and North Africa, says: "Mobile spam and viruses present distinct threats from their internet-based equivalents and require a different approach to prevent and control them. Mobile operators worldwide have a big role to play in protecting subscribers from SMiShing."||**|||~|khalil200.jpg|~|Khalil: Now phishing by SMS is becoming a threat to users of mobile devices.|~|Verisign is a provider of authentication and billing protection solutions for the telecommunications industry, and manages the servers for the dot com and dot net domains. Although it will not open its Middle East office until January 2007, it has been involved in projects in the region for the last five to six years.

Verisign recently worked with MTC on ensuring its online security. "We helped them from a security standpoint in Bahrain," says Neil Batstone, enterprise sales director, security and service, Verisign.

"We helped advise them on security policies and investments because by moving the business online you're exposing yourself to risk."

He adds: "In the Middle East we're seeing a market desperately hungry for technology and also seeing competition. We're seeing more flexible packages.

"Customers want to be able to access any kind of information any time of day. In the UAE we have a second entrant trying to penetrate the customer base. The winners will be the ones who can meet customers' demands."

Security is also becoming increasingly important to users of mobile devices within telcos. "We have four telcos who are users. We provide them with the security solutions to prevent data leaks," says Ayman Majzoub, general manager, Pointsec Middle East.

"In the last two to three years, telcos have been growing outside their countries' borders. They are becoming more mobile and scattered geographically.

“This has made their infrastructure and devices not just stored on a server behind closed walls but onto mobile devices."

Stefan Niemic, engagement manager, telecommunications, MENA, Sun, says: "Local operators' challenges are to make sure that their ARPU (average revenue per user) doesn't decline - and they've actually got quite strong ARPU - but more than anything else is to reduce the churn and maintain their customer base."

Sun's identity management solutions are helping telcos to come up with new products and packages more quickly. "It allows all of the services to be deployed and tied together so the time to market is much reduced," says Niemic. "When the telco wants to release a new service the time to market is reduced. That reduces the cost and it increases customer loyalty."

Estel Technology, an Indian firm, provides a range of billing systems designed to cater for converged bills, but it also has its own churn management system. It also has loyalty scheme solutions, and is using technology to help telcos retain their customer base in the face of increased competition.

Osama Ghoul, managing partner, Devoteam, believes that technology can make the difference when it comes to meeting customer needs. "Billing and CRM are becoming one of the major differentiators for the telco operators because it's simply dealing directly with the client and addressing the client's needs immediately," he says.

"That's why you can see lots of telco operators are moving from the legacy billing systems into more advanced billing systems where they can bill their customers by the second, they can offer several products and services that can be billed to the customer and hence the customer will benefit in terms of being able to utilise his money to buy the best product to fit him."

Devoteam works with telcos to develop their strategy and determine the kinds of technology they need to implement to deliver on it. The company then helps to design an architecture that will allow different platforms to function and interact accordingly.

"One of the major areas we are very strong in providing to our clients is that once this has been implemented and before going into the actual operation we help our customers test these platforms by simulating the amount of traffic," says Ghoul.

"Keep in mind that these systems are going to deal with millions of subscribers on their networks, so between the amount of traffic on their networks and the number of requests that come from customers, we're talking about millions and millions of transactions that a platform for billing and CRM will have to deal with on a daily basis.

"And as this platform is the first interface that the customer would see from the telco operators, the fact that it has to be up and running and performing up to a very high standard is mandatory - it's not an option."

Top performance is critical in a highly competitive environment, and part of that involves timely access to accurate information. Jordanian software developer Eskadenia provides solutions for billing and CRM, among other tasks, but says that its priority is to enable a unified environment where customer information can be seamlessly transferred from one application to another.

Nael Salah, managing director, Eskadenia, says: "I think the strong point that we have is we can provide one interface to the customer care agents within the operator's organisation so they use only our system to handle everything associated with postpaid subscribers, prepaid subscribers, roaming subscribers and interconnect agreements with other networks."

One of Eskadenia's customers in the region is Comium Systems, which is a telecoms provider in Iraq, as well as several African countries. It has seen the benefit of using Eskadenia's systems.

Mostapha Karaki, head of the billing division at Comium Systems, says: "It gives a manpower saving in terms of automating your daily operation tasks, such as roaming, file management, and billing of calls.

"It also gives you better control of statistical information and how you're running your information. When you take the daily call detail records then you can sort them out in a way that shows you where your deficiency is, maybe in covering certain cities or in reducing prices relating to certain countries because so many people are phoning that country. It gives you data that you can use for commercial and marketing use.

"In addition to your subscribers you can use that data just like any data warehousing application where you can come up with reports showing your most-called countries or which area your traffic is going to the most, etc. Such data will be used by our financial team as well as our commercial team to plan their offer strategies to the end customer."

There are also telecoms solutions which are not so visible, but must still deliver high performance. "We are providing a billing system to a fixed line provider in Iran," says Dr Kamran Ghaderi, CEO, Avanoc.

"We are providing them the complete billing system and CRM solution." In addition, the company also provides interception solutions, which operators must have in place so that legal agencies can access telephone conversations, to telcos in 14 Middle East countries.

Solutions such as these are mandatory in most countries but need to be inconspicuous to telephone users, so cannot impair call quality.

Across the board, technology providers are coming up with new ways for telcos to cater for the increasing demands of their customers. Those that are willing to run an adaptive enterprise will be the ones to retain their customer base and be best equipped to cope with future demands.||**||

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