MTN SA MD Karel Pienaar has apologised for the billing system debacle that resulted in thousands of its customers being incorrectly billed.
Pienaar says the last of the problems are being ironed out and says the new billing system, implemented by IBM, positions the company well for future growth.
“I apologise to my customers for putting them through this and have total sympathy and empathy for the suffering they are going through,” Pienaar says.
The billing problems, which affected as many as 600 000 MTN customers, happened mainly between September and December 2009, he says. “For many of the customers, it wouldn’t have been material and we would have corrected it before they even noticed.”
The upgrade was the first time MTN had replaced its billing system since it began operating 16 years ago. “We didn’t just replace the wholesale billing system, but also the billing system components that are integrated into the network, all the switches in the network which send real-time information to the billing gateways,” Pienaar says.
He likens the upgrade to performing open-heart surgery. “It goes to the core of the organisation. There’s lot of spaghetti connecting everything.”
Without getting too technical, the main problems were related to duplicate data that were being fed into the billing system.
“For short periods we had duplicated CDRs (call detail records) going into the billing system, and the checking was not sophisticated enough to pick up all the duplicates,” he says.
The result was MTN began issuing duplicate bills to some of its contract subscribers. “We’ve now put in an extensive bit of software in front of the billing system to look for these duplicates.”
Despite the problems, Pienaar says the new billing system positions the company well for the future, allowing it to launch new products and services, “especially in the smartphone era we’re moving into now”.
The new system will also allow MTN’s call centre agents to serve customers better, he says.
The billing system upgrade comes at the same time that MTN is investing heavily in new network infrastructure. It has spent R12bn in the past two years modernising its network, with another R4,5bn allocated for 2010. “[These upgrades] also caused some network issues, especially in the first half of last year, but in the past six months our network quality has improved dramatically.
“Our core network is now ready for LTE, for the mass deployment of data,” Pienaar says. LTE, or Long-Term Evolution, is the fourth-generation cellular technology that will begin to replace third-generation networks in the next few years.
Pienaar doesn’t believe the billing problems have resulted in MTN losing significant market share. Call prices have a much bigger impact on churn, he says. “The real damage for me is more the level of frustration we have caused our customers.” — Duncan McLeod, TechCentral