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MTC-Vodafone prepares overhaul of Bahraini network

MTC-Vodafone Bahrain has become the first mobile operator in the Middle East to declare intent to shift its voice traffic onto an internet protocol (IP) based platform.

MTC-Vodafone Bahrain has become the first mobile operator in the Middle East to declare intent to shift its voice traffic onto an internet protocol (IP) based platform.

The Bahraini operator is currently implementing an IP/multi-protocol label switching (MPLS) backbone network in the Kingdom, onto which it says it will gradually migrate its voice, video and data traffic.

It is also planning to move its entire mobile subscriber base onto 3G after completing a project that will provide total UMTS coverage of the island by the end of the year.

“We have concluded an agreement with Cisco where we are deploying [IP/MPLS] technology for the transmission of voice and data between our switching centres,” Khaled Muhtadi, chief operating officer, IT and customer service, MTC-Vodafone Bahrain, tells CommsMEA.

“There is also a plan to extend it to our base stations. As we are operating in a saturated market we feel it is critical that we build solid infrastructure that offers full integration of all of our services,” he adds.

The initial phase of the project, the operator says, will be completed by the beginning of December. It will revamp the backbone section of the mobile network it launched late in 2003.

Among other things, the move will allow it to packet-switch traffic and configure transmission links to take account of changing voice and data usage, thus bringing down costs.

Its Kuwaiti parent company, MTC, is also looking to use the solution to speed up its regional deployment of multimedia services by interconnecting its different subsidiaries and allowing them to access applications developed in Bahrain.

“It will be a future proof platform and allow MTC to be very flexible with new services,” says Massimo Migliuolo, vice president of mobile sales worldwide, Cisco Systems.

“There’s going to be more differentiation between mobile operators of voice, video and data services and we believe that IP/MPLS is the right glue to bring it all together. The other advantage of the infrastructure is that it is going to enable much quicker cross-pollination of services across different markets,” he adds.

Despite the full liberalisation of Bahrain’s telecoms market in July, MTC-Vodafone is currently ruling out a move into the market for fixed services, which it could hypothetically carry across the core network and offer to its existing mobile customer base. “We’re just focused on mobile services at this moment in time,” says Muhtadi.

But the move comes as the operator is looking to ramp up its portfolio of mobile multimedia services and generate demand that would justify its investment in IP.

For example, it has just launched mobile virtual private networks (VPNs) for enterprises in the Kingdom, and says it is set to double the amount of consumer-oriented content available via its portal, such as video streamed news broadcasts and updates sent by SMS and MMS.

Analysts point out that the deployment of MPLS would allow the operator to more effectively balance voice and data traffic transmision if those services started experiencing more demand.

“Having one network over which MTC-Vodafone could run its traffic, and being able to prioritise voice and data, will lower costs,” says Mohsen Malaki, programme and consulting manager, communications, IDC CEMA.

“Over a unified network, it could also offer new services that it wouldn’t be able to offer in a non-IP environment. Billing-wise, the move will also make it easier for the operator to unify services for contract and pre-paid customers and be more flexible with pricing policies,” he adds.

Neither Cisco nor MTC-Vodafone would reveal the network’s cost. But they say that, further down the line, it could be extended to MTC’s other networks in Kuwait, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon.

“The idea was to set up a showcase operation for MTC in Bahrain and take the lessons learned to other markets. Based on the experience with the IP core, I’m sure it will be replicated in other operations,” says Muhtadi.

However, a pick-up in demand for data services is expected to determine whether similar moves are taken by regional operators with longer-standing investments.

“The only IP traffic that’s officially in the region right now from the operators is data,” says Malaki. “The only mobile operators that would [move to IP/MPLS] will be the ones that generate enough data traffic to justify the increased capex. MTC-Vodafone Bahrain doesn’t have much of an existing investment in its network, so it could more easily deploy IP/MPLS than Saudi Telecom, for example. But if data traffic takes off for Etisalat, or Wataniya or MTC Kuwait, then they would start to seriously look into unifying voice and data on the same network,” he adds.

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