IP network upgrade rings the changes for Liberian operator Libtelco

Libtelco, the only fixed-line telecoms operator in Liberia, turned to Cataleya to support a nationwide network upgrade

Liberian telecoms operator Libtelco has turned to internet protocol (IP) networking services supplier Cataleya to implement turnkey interconnection, billing, session and application management services as it migrates from a traditional time-division multiplexing (TDM) infrastructure to a new national IP network.

As the Liberian national operator and sole licensed fixed-line communications provider in the west African country, Libtelco serves both consumers and businesses, as well as providing backhaul services to the country’s mobile network operators. Liberia, in common with many African countries, has a very high mobile penetration rate of around 78% or 2.4 million active subscribers.

Libtelco’s upgrade is running in two stages, firstly a core modernisation to help deliver domestic and international voice over IP (VoIP) services to enterprises and the public sector, and notably to allow international calling from fixed-line phones for the first time ever, and secondly the delivery of unified communications-as-a-service (UCaaS) for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Cataleya, the supplier selected to help kick-start the project, is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Epsilon Global Communications. Founded two-and-a-half years ago in Singapore, with development in Silicon Valley, the firm bills itself as a key player in IP networking innovation, with a strong track record in developing and deploying next-generation carrier-grade switching.

Still acting very much like a startup, according to CEO Andreas Hipp, it now boasts around 13 telco customers, and already has some experience in the west African market, having previously supplied its Orchid One session and application manager to Interconnect Clearinghouse Nigeria (ICN) as part of a move from TDM interconnects to IP.

ICN has used Orchid One to serve local and regional mobile operators, as well as fixed-line service providers, with intelligent IP connectivity, explains Hipp, and Libtelco has walked a similar path.

“We are transforming our network to deliver advanced communications services and applications, and are shaping a new era in the communications sector in Liberia,” says Libtelco CEO and managing director Sebastian Muah.

“We selected Cataleya because it offered us the fastest and most efficient way to modernise our network and deliver high-quality IP services. It is critical that we invest in future-proof technologies such as Orchid One to guarantee the long-term success of the communications market in Liberia.”

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The implementation threw up a number of challenges, not least the relative age and development level of the national Liberian infrastructure.

“This is Libtelco’s first experience of providing IP network and IP services to their customers and it’s the first time they’ve offered VoIP on a fixed-line network. It’s probably about 15 years since Europe did that,” says Hipp.

“However, clearly, like in any country there is a push towards IP networking,” he continues. “The phasing out of TDM has been a discussion point for some time – it’s a complicated layered architecture and you cannot dial down a service easily and cost-effectively.

“But, in a few years TDM hardware will be largely unsupported, so there is a technology drive. Also the benefits, flexibility and cost-saving you get on an IP network is a main driver for Libtelco.”

Cataleya deployed a large team of its own to Liberia to assist in the implementation, and provide technical training and support to Libtelco’s engineers.

“What we spent a lot of time on is the user interface of the technology – the portals that engineers use when provisioning and commissioning the network – to get away from code line programming to an iPhone style interface, with icons, to more easily configure systems.”

According to Hipp, the process of training TDM engineers up to a level where they are comfortable with handling IP networking technology was vastly reduced during the course of the implementation.

Liberia has, of course, been in the news in recent months for one of the largest outbreaks of the Ebola virus in history, but Hipp says he was pleasantly surprised by how professionally both the international and local teams on the ground were able to work through the crisis.

“The biggest challenge we had from Ebola,” he says, “was getting back through UK immigration.”

Connectivity sea change

For Libtelco, the project represents a sea change in its ability to act as a modern-day telco. As already mentioned, a key benefit already realised has been to give citizens the ability to place calls outside the country over Liberia’s fixed-line infrastructure. This has helped people keep in touch with relatives living and working abroad – up to 100,000 Liberians currently reside in the US thanks to strong historical links between the two countries.

Libtelco is also exploring offering new service bundles and UCaaS to its enterprise customers – up to now services such as Microsoft Skype for Business, formerly Lync, have been largely unknown in the country.

Hipp adds: “A further key focus for us, and a big feature of the design, was to make sure that we could ensure quality of service and experience for users on the IP network.”

Libtelco now has more visibility into what is happening on its network at any one time, and is better able to manage quality of service for its customers. Its engineers can now monitor the network to find and even anticipate faults in real time, and implement fixes before their customers have noticed there is a problem.

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