MTN’s deal with Cell C under scrutiny

MTN and Cell C’s network sharing agreement is under scrutiny, with industries players drawing parallels between their deal and MTN and Telkom’s network sharing plan which was blocked.

On 18 November 2019, Cell C announced that it had concluded an expanded roaming agreement with MTN which gives it nationwide 3G and 4G roaming.

Through this agreement, Cell C will get full access to MTN’s 12,500 sites across South Africa, of which over 90% are LTE-enabled.

This expanded roaming agreement enables Cell C to shut down its radio network and move all its traffic onto MTN’s network.

Cell C said it is deliberately changing its business model and is exiting the capital-intensive “buy and build” infrastructure model.

Instead, it is moving towards a model that will see it become the largest purchaser of capacity from infrastructure service providers.

“Over a period of 36 months, which started on 1 January 2020, Cell C will transition from a physical radio access network to a virtual one provisioned by MTN,” the company said.

“This will happen in the background and is a technical aspect of the agreement between Cell C and MTN, where Cell C is buying capacity to use MTN’s infrastructure.”

Cell C highlighted that it would remain a mobile network operator which is in full control of its spectrum.

MTN SA executive for corporate affairs Jacqui O’Sullivan said this agreement is in line with shifts in the global telecoms industry that drive down costs and deliver greater operational efficiencies.

She said it is important to note that Cell C and MTN will maintain their spectrum and each party will use its own frequencies.

“Cell C will still have all its licenses and control its core network, transmission, billing system, and subscriber management,” O’Sullivan said.

MTN and Cell C said this extended roaming agreement adheres to all applicable legal and regulatory requirements.

MTN and Cell C’s network sharing plan under scrutiny

Industry players have raised concerns that MTN and Cell C’s network sharing plan mirrors an agreement between MTN and Telkom in 2014.

This network management services and reciprocal roaming agreement would have seen:

  • MTN taking over financial and operational responsibility for the rollout and operation of Telkom’s RAN.
  • MTN and Telkom would roam on each other’s networks.

In 2015, the Competition Commission recommended that the planned radio access network (RAN) deal between MTN and Telkom should be blocked.

The Commission said the agreement raised anti-competitive concerns because MTN would be able to gain significant additional spectrum from Telkom.

It would also have dampened potential competition in the wholesale market and hampered Telkom’s ability to grow and independently compete against MTN and other rivals.

At the time, Cell C was one of the parties which opposed the agreement between MTN and Telkom, saying it would lessen competition.

The shoe is now on the other foot, and Telkom is urging ICASA to look into the roaming deal between MTN and Cell C.

Telkom said the agreement between Cell C and MTN does not make sense as a roaming deal in the traditional sense.

Questions about MTN and Cell C’s agreement

With the Competition Commission’s recommendation to block the MTN-Telkom agreement still fresh in their memory, Cell C and MTN would like to avoid similarities between its deal and the one which was blocked.

With Cell C moving to MTN’s radio access network and mutual roaming on each other’s spectrum, the agreements look remarkably similar.

Industry players, who spoke to MyBroadband on condition of anonymity, said it is currently not clear how the two deals are different.

The biggest question, they said, is who manages what. MTN is likely to do all the spectrum management and decide what spectrum is used where.

A well-placed industry source told MyBroadband the current agreement gives MTN full control over the spectrum.

“At first sight, the deal between Cell C and MTN looks the same as the deal between Telkom and MTN, which was blocked,” he said.

To try to get clarity on the agreement between Cell C and MTN, MyBroadband asked both networks the following questions:

  • Can you explain how the roaming will work? Will Cell C have its own radio network with its own antennas, or will it be served through MTN’s radio network?
  • Will Cell C’s spectrum be used exclusively for Cell C subscribers, or will it be integrated with MTN’s network?
  • Will MTN subscribers roam on Cell C’s spectrum?
  • Is MTN’s backhaul network used to carry Cell C’s traffic from each tower, or does Cell C have its own backhaul network?
  • Where is traffic handed over from MTN to Cell C?

Neither Cell C nor MTN would answer these questions. These are technically simple to answer, but there are clearly concerns that the answers may put the deal at jeopardy.

MTN said its extended roaming agreement with Cell C is a commercial one and is therefore subject to confidentiality between the parties.

“Additionally, the technical build of the solution we have offered is competitor-sensitive and we would therefore prefer not to reveal the technical detail of that solution,” said O’Sullivan.

There is particular sensitivity around Cell C being called a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO), and for good reason.

Should Cell C be classified as an MVNO, it will raise questions as to why it needs spectrum if it does not have its own radio access network.

Spectrum is one of its most valuable assets, especially if it can sign a roaming deal with MTN similar to Rain’s deal with Vodacom.

Regulatory expert Dominic Cull said that in his view, Cell C is already an MVNO or will shortly become one, which will put its spectrum at risk.

He added that there are very few technical details available about Cell C’s planned virtual radio access network, which will ultimately determine whether the agreement adheres to legal and regulatory requirements.

Cell C and MTN national roaming agreement

Cell C has developed a document to explain how its national roaming agreement with MTN works.

Now read: All Cell C network traffic will move to MTN – But not until it can pay its bills

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MTN’s deal with Cell C under scrutiny