Page last updated at 22:27 GMT, Wednesday, 16 April 2008 23:27 UK

Politics splits Kosovo phone system

By Dominic Laurie
BBC News, Pristina, Kosovo

Man talking on mobile
Mobile phone ownership is growing rapidly in Kosovo

After landing at Pristina airport, I switched on my mobile phone.

A message flashed up "welcome to Monaco, calls cost 38p per minute".

Out of the taxi window were hulks of rusting cars, some pretty basic houses and torn up roadways.

Monaco it wasn't.

But my phone wasn't broken either.

Rather, as I found out later, it was evidence of the very strange way the Kosovan phone network is run.

Three networks

Kosovo has not one, not two, but three international dialling codes.

Serbia, Monaco and Slovenia all play their part in a very Kosovan story.

Cafe in Pristina, Kosovo
The newly affluent are using mobile phones instead of land lines

In the late 1990's, during the final years of Serb rule, hardly any Kosovans had a mobile phone.

The technology was still pretty new, and few could afford them.

The arrival of the United Nations (UN) administrative force in 1999 coincided with a big increase in their popularity.

The trouble is, as with many things here, politics got in the way of what should have been a simple tale of technical progress.

Split loyalties

The official international dialling code for Kosovo was, and still is, +381. It was the number used throughout the old Yugoslavia, and after its break up, Serbia.

In 1999, Kosovan opinion formers made it clear to the new UN administrators that continuing to use the +381 prefix for mobile phone calls would no longer be acceptable.

They wanted a new number.

Years of wartime enmity meant most Kosovans wanted as little as possible to do with their former rulers.

Strangely, the feelings were not nearly as strong when it came to fixed line numbers.

Less than 5% of Kosovans had landlines, and those who did still seemed prepared to have people use +381 when calling them from abroad.

Monaco deal

But what code to use, then, for mobiles?

Mobile phone message from Monaco
The screen tells only half the story

Various operators using various country codes offered their services. But UN administrators decided that a proposal from Monaco was the best.

The deal worked like this.

Monaco Telecom would route all international calls through their networks.

Local calls were not their concern.

For their troubles, Monaco Telecom would receive 30% of all international call revenues.

As demand rose, Monaco Telecom would send blocks of 100,000 new mobile phone numbers to PTK, the state-owned Kosovan telecoms company.

Genc Lami, legal and regulatory affairs manager for PTK says this early arrangement was "quite tough".

So in April 2006, PTK succeeded in renegotiating a more complex, but less financially punishing, arrangement.

In 2009, the deal comes up for renewal.

New code?

Mr Lami says he has not ruled out applying for a new "Kosovan country code" all of their own.

Though admitting Kosovo has yet to be recognised as a nation state by the majority of the international community, he points out that did not stop Palestine.

But, he adds, if Monaco offers a good deal, no change may be necessary.

Indeed, nobody here I spoke to volunteered any complaints about the arrangement. It seems to work for PTK too.

Though the company had to pay 14m euros ($22m, 11.4m) last year to Monaco Telecom for their services, its profits dwarfed that figure.

From revenues of 130m euros, they earned 70m euros in profits. But will this year's figure be as good?

Enter Slovenia

PTK is now having to compete with a private operator.

Slovenian-owned Ipko used just to be the main internet service provider in Kosovo.

But since late last year, it has been offering mobile services too.

And it has done well, claiming the capture of 160,000 customers in the two months after its launch, some 7% of the population.

Just to make things more complex, Ipko has chosen to route its Kosovan customers' international calls via Slovenia.

Call one of them, and you have to use +386.

This adds a third country into Kosovo's telephone network mix.

From a tiny base just a few years ago, mobile phone use in Kosovo is rising very fast.

People here still complain of difficulties, among them poor sound quality and network coverage.

But its strange system of dialling codes does not seem to be one of them.


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