Cell C has successfully decommissioned 34% of its physical Radio Access Network (RAN) sites, while seamlessly migrating prepaid and Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) customers to roam solely on its partner network, MTN, via a virtual RAN.

In this first phase, the focus has been in three provinces, namely the Eastern Cape, Free State and Northern Cape which are now 100% complete. In the next six months Cell C plans to decommission a further 10 percent of its network sites, with a focus in North-West, Limpopo, Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga.

Schalk Visser, chief technology officer at Cell C, says: “Our network strategy is to strengthen our position as a wholesale buyer and aggregator of network capacity with a quality network and become a digital services provider.”

Through its expanded roaming agreement with MTN, Cell C will have access to more than 12 500 4G/LTE ready sites for its prepaid and MVNO customers across the country, with completion scheduled for late 2023.

The initial Cell C and MTN roaming agreement from 2018 provided coverage in areas outside of the main metros. The decommissioning of sites in these provinces means that where Cell C customers previously moved between Cell C and MTN towers, they will now only roam on MTN’s network through the virtual radio network provisioned for Cell C, which has wide network coverage.

“If our strategy were to play catch up to the Vodacom and MTN networks, we would have to invest R1,5-billion per year for 18 years – conservatively estimated at R27-billion – based on the assumption that we would be able to build 400 new cellular sites per year, and assuming Vodacom and MTN did not build any new sites during this period. This investment in our network infrastructure would be impossible to maintain,” adds Visser.

Based on technology advances it is possible for network operators to avoid duplication of investment in RAN infrastructure. In this model, Cell C will decommission its physical RAN, which includes towers, base stations, antennae, radio and transmission equipment, while MTN will provision a virtual RAN. Cell C will use its own spectrum on this virtual RAN and manage the customer experience. As a mobile network operator Cell C is still responsible for its spectrum licenses, core network, transport network, billing system and subscriber management.

This approach will significantly reduce network expenses and capital expenditure, allowing the newly positioned technology company to be profitable, access best-in-class infrastructure, benefit from scale, improve customer experience, focus on innovating products and services; and be able to pass on value to customers.

It is in line with shifts in the global telecoms industry towards more cost-effective network strategies that drive down costs and deliver greater operational efficiencies that ultimately benefit consumers. Preshendran Odayar, a telecommunications analyst at Nedbank CIB, says: “Cell C’s network model transformation epitomises the “open access” and “asset-efficiency/sharing” theme that is playing out across the SA mobile landscape.”

Visser explains: “Data will become Cell C’s cost of sale and the real value will be created through the servicing of customer needs. It will not be about the technologies, but rather Cell C’s ability to understand customer needs, using AI and data analytics, and then satisfy those needs with the appropriate technology and user experience.

“The change in technology is unprecedented and an agile and open mindset will be needed to stay current and relevant to customers and society.”


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