Even if you are the incumbent in your market, you can never stop innovating – your competitors are always at your heels. Malawi Telecommunications Limited (MTL), a leading information and communication technology company headquartered in Blantyre, understands this very well. MTL may have once been the established national provider in Malawi, but the MNO has had to reinvent itself many times: first as a private subsidiary after it was sold by the government, then as one of many competitors moving into the rapidly growing African mobile market. Now, the company is partnering with PortaOne to accelerate that evolution – on a budget – and to transform once again by launching Malawi’s first-ever hosted PBX system for the enterprise community.
A Gradual Evolution
Despite being a national MNO, MTL faces many of the same challenges that smaller CSPs face, including limited resources and a challenging market that requires unique approaches. To complicate things further, MTL was dealing with high levels of theft and vandalism of its copper-wire infrastructure, eventually leading the company to decommission much of that infrastructure and instead re-focus its investment on internet and inter-branch connectivity for enterprises, along with its traditional fixed services.
But no CSP can ignore the incredible growth in the mobile market for long, and in 2022, the company decided to move into the mobile space with a new LTE system. That created a new challenge, however: MTL’s existing billing and charging system was outdated, expensive to maintain and incompatible with LTE, and yet they could not afford to once again overhaul their entire infrastructure. So, MTL came to PortaOne to help them execute a more gradual evolution.
For the first stage of their LTE project, MTL wanted to target residential customers.
“PortaBilling was very flexible,” says Kondwani Masiye, head of business development for MTL. “We felt it could do what we wanted it to, and the pricing and licensing model was very good. We can add as many customers as we want, and we don’t need to pay PortaOne.”
The company chose PortaBilling for its flexible online charging system (OCS), using Yate as the mobile network core. As monthly recurring subscriptions are not popular in the Malawian residential market, MTL appreciated having the ability to customize PortaBilling to create a billing process that was more suitable to the Malawian market. Thanks to the platform’s accessible API, MTL was able to create a clever integration that allows the company to create monthly customer accounts that expire in the same way as pay-as-you-go bundles do. That means residential customers now have the option to let their service auto-renew or to have it expire at the end of each term, so they can decide on their own how much they want to spend one month to the next – a critical benefit for a customer market that values a high level of control over their monthly costs.
The next step for MTL was to expand its VoIP wireless services, including cloud PBX for enterprise customers. For that, they needed PortaSwitch — and here again, that PortaOne flexibility was the perfect fit for their do-what-we-can-ourselves strategy. MTL could set up the VoIP and SIP switches they needed for the VoIP service, and then migrate over their pre-paid residential voice customers in batches to PortaBilling. Meanwhile, they could maintain their post-paid, data, and enterprise customers on their old system until they were ready for the next steps.
“The brilliant part of our PortaOne products is the integration between the two systems,” Masiye says. “There is the billing part, and then there is the voice switch. We are now migrating all of our PSTN customers over to VoIP and PortaOne.”
The entire process has been very cost-efficient for MTL, as they have been able to undertake the majority of the development work themselves, using the PortaOne support team for troubleshooting or advice when needed.
“The system is very well documented,” says Masiye, adding that even today his team often finds the solution they need in the documentation before they have to pick up the phone. And when MTL does come up against an issue they can’t resolve on their own, the help is there. “They are very responsive, both over the phone and by email,” he says. “You open a ticket and you get instant support.”
Stalwart Support – Even in Crisis
MTL first engaged PortaOne during the height of COVID, so in the early stages of their initial LTE project, both companies were adapting to a very different way of working together. For example, all of the training and the entire process of discovery – PortaOne’s method of undertaking a deep preliminary investigation to uncover potential issues before they happen – took place online, which was a new experience for both companies.
“It was very good – it was well coordinated,” says Masiye. “The team from PortaOne was very clear about what was possible and what was not possible. There has been a lot of rapport between our engineers and their engineers.”
That level of service was tested further when Russia invaded Ukraine and the engineering team at PortaOne had to provide customer support while under attack. “Even at the beginning of the war when Kyiv was under siege, we got good support,” Masiye recalls. “The engineers were underground and we could tell they were having challenges, but we still got the support. It was remarkable.”
Taking the Next Steps
After taking part in a demo of PortaPhone last March, MTL subscribed to that service via the Add-on Mart, and the MTL team is currently working on PortaBilling integrations for both their SAP ERM and a new CRM. And, because the PortaBilling/Yate system allows MTL to switch customers back and forth between different systems, the company can now gradually test and expand their offerings in SMS and VoLTE.
Most recently, MTL launched that new cloud PBX service, which is not only the first locally offered cloud PBX system for Malawi businesses, but also the first deployment for the Add-on Mart Kubernetes cluster based in Johannesburg. Masiye thinks the service will make business much easier for enterprises in Malawi. “Small and medium businesses don’t want that physical box – they don’t have the expertise to manage it, and they can’t afford the cost,” he says. “Once we are providing the cloud PBX service, not only will it remove that need for physical hardware, it will also allow them to move more easily, or even move to a new city, and nothing will change for them.”
MTL’s first customer for the cloud PBX service was the company’s own headquarters: an ideal testing ground for the MTL to perfect the service before releasing it to the Malawian business market later this year.
Do you have a vision of evolution for your own communications business? We’d love to help you make it a reality. Get in touch with our team and tell us what you’d like to do. Whether you want to make a big change all at once or start with a small step, we’ll be there beside you all the way.