Nigeria’s Making the Switch to VoIP – The African data future starts to become a reality

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Everything in Africa’s telecoms sector will become data. The question is not if but when and how. Nigeria has begun to take some steps that will begin to accelerate that process. Russell Southwood spoke to Jude Chukwuma, CTO, Interconnect Clearing House Nigeria about how its own equipment strategy throws light on that data future.

On the last report we did on VoIP in Africa, we identified a process of transition to VoIP that started with international traffic using VoIP and then cascades down to data connections at the national level. This would then be followed by metronet voice data connections ending up with the handset in the hands of the consumer.

The last part of this transition was always going to be tough but the arrival of VoLTE has begun to accelerate that process. In Nigeria, two (currently) small operators – Natcoms (the revived assets of Nitel) and Smile – have taken this route. Natcoms is running a pilot and will launch its service soon and Smile has already launched (more of which in a later issue).

These are both small players in Nigerian terms but the introduction of VoLTE is significant in two ways. Firstly, it puts VoIP ready phones into the market at a point when the sale of smartphones is increasing. Secondly, although small, these players have built a data-purposed network from the beginning and will be getting cost savings not yet available to larger players. And for Nigerians used to carrying several phones, it will be advantage to have a VoLTE phone on a smaller network in three big cities: you will be able to avoid peak time congestion.

Nigeria’s regulator the NCC set up six voice and data interconnection points in an effort to address the Quality of Service issues of the big four operators: MTN, Glo, Airtel and Etisalat. It wanted to reduce network congestion and improve the quality of network interconnection. It mandated that a certain amount of mobile operator traffic (10%) had to flow through these interconnect points at a certain price.

Also with interconnect points, it wanted to reduce both the OPEX and CAPEX required to run multiple links to multiple operators and with six of them, there would plenty of redundant links if one went down.

Interconnect Clearing House Nigeria is one of these six interconnect points and its transition to VoIP gives it an interesting vantage point to see what attitude the different operators are taking to VoIP. Its business is largely focused on voice and SMS and indeed it might be best described as a “voice meet point”.

Its CTO Jude Chukwuma told me:”We used to be 100% TDM, now it’s 40% IP and 60% TDM.” So what’s the attitude of the different operators to VoIP?:”Airtel just does TDM and has refused to go into IP. With MTN, it’s all IP and Glo and Etisalat are a hybrid of both but neither is transitioning fast.”

Understandably, the VoIP transition is focused on the “golden triangle” of Lagos, Port Harcourt and Abuja. In other places, the Internet part of the networks is not yet considered good enough by most carriers. This again points to the current weakness of mobile operator networks for a data future. Because Nigeria is just beginning this transition process there are not many engineers with much experience of IP yet.

When Interconnect Clearing House Nigeria started operations it bought a Siemens TDM switch. It looked at a long list of vendors and eventually went with Siemens again because it was offered as an upgrade:”But it failed and we spent two years trying to get it to work.” The company is currently in litigation with the successor company.

So it went to Dialogic”They made fantastic financial offers but that was a big disaster. By 2012, we were still resolving issues with them….we were losing money and reputation. We couldn’t resolve the IP trunking with Dialogic. It routed traffic (to a central point) in Lagos and each time the switch would go down and have to be rebooted. Everybody was telling us to use World Telecoms Labs and many of our competitors were using it. We still have the Dialogic central switch but we swopped out the two other locations and the voice quality is just fine.”

“We swopped out first in Abuja and our revenues started going back up again because it became more stable.” This transition was followed by Port Harcourt:”With Dialogic, it took 4 engineers 2 months to install. With WTL we did it ourselves and it took 3 days.”

WTL were also able to solve the issues that had been having with the SMS port and did so in 8 weeks:”That’s what we’re using now. It’s a small box that does SMS and USSD. All these things were developed on request.” Whatever the rights and wrongs of what happened with the other vendors, this gives a clear indication of the potential for ease of implementation and use when things go IP. These are small steps to a very different African future.

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