So Kosovo just turned off the remaining Serbian mobile phone towers:
The Kosovo Albanian authorities in PriÅ¡tina removed the equipment of all Belgrade-based mobile and landline operators this morning…
Eyewitnesses, who secured the premises, said that â€œspecial policeâ€ broke into Telekom, Telenor and VIP structures to help cut off cables and take down equipment, at around 05:00 CET.
Eyewitnesses said that workers of a “telecommunications regulatory body” from PriÅ¡tina removed transmitters and randomly severed cables.
As a consequence, 40,000 Serbs are either left without mobile service in that part of the province, or have very poor reception.
A little background. Before 1999, Kosovo was covered by Serbian mobile phone networks. Since 1999, it’s developed its own — three of them. But the Serbian networks have continued to operate towers and provide mobile telephony. Unsurprisingly, most of the users have been Kosovar Serbs in the enclaves. Meanwhile the Kosovar Albanians have been buying chips and service contracts from the three Kosovar networks.
If this sort of thing interests you, there’s more.
Back when UNMIK was running Kosovo, they quite deliberately refused to sit in judgment on the whole mobile telephone issue. UNMIK set up KTA, the Kosovo Telecommunications Authority, the “telecommunications regulatory body” mentioned up above, to run telecommunications in Kosovo. But they discouraged KTA from moving against the Serb towers and networks in the enclaves. But Kosovo declared itself independent two years ago, and they’re finally getting around to pulling the plug on the the Serbian providers.
The Serbs, of course, see this as an attack on the Serbs. Even the relatively liberal B92 site is doing stuff like putting “telecommunications regulatory body” in scare quotes — which is silly, since KTA was created and empowered by UNMIK pursuant to Resolution 1244, which is the basis of current Serbian claims to authority in Kosovo. That said, it’s true that this affects the Serb community disproportionately; while not all of the people holding Serb mobiles are Serbs, most Serbs that have mobiles have Serbian ones.
The Kosovar Albanians point out that the Serb providers don’t have licenses. More to the point, they’ve never paid a cent of VAT or licensing fees. Why, they ask, should any country tolerate unauthorized providers, competing unfairly with the properly licensed ones that have to pay taxes and all?
That said, there are some interesting wrinkles to this this story. Here’s one that neither side is emphasizing: a surprising number of Albanians also have Serbian mobile phones. In the past, this was because Serb mobile phones were cheaper and provided better service. In recent years, Kosovar mobile phone service has gotten a lot better. (Long story. Short version: better regulation, some real competition.) But Serbian mobile phones are still attractive to Albanians who do business with Serbia. And that’s a fairly large group. If you include black- and grey-market trade, Serbia is Kosovo’s largest trading partner, although neither is eager to advertise the fact.
Another wrinkle: the biggest Kosovar mobile provider — PTK, Post and Telecoms of Kosovo, the state-owned telecom, which owns Vala Mobile — is getting ready for privatization. And PTK has been complaining about the Serbian providers for years; they’re competing directly with them, without paying fees or taxes. So, it’s possible that the privatization may have pushed PTK to push KTA to pull the plug.
But it was going to happen eventually anyway. In fact, it’s rather surprising it didn’t happen already. There are some interesting theories about that, including the fact that it will temporarily inconvenience a lot of Kosovar businessmen — again, lots of people do business with Serbia — and at least a couple of fairly major figures who have been quietly selling Serbian mobile chips and accounts.
In any event, it’s done now, and is very unlikely to be reversed.
That said, it does demonstrate — once again — how far apart Belgrade and Prishtina are. This is the sort of issue that could have been quietly resolved with just a little goodwill on both sides. Instead the Serbs refused to recognize KTA’s authority to regulate telecoms in Kosovo, and KTA simply pulled the plug. And tens of thousands of people, both Serbs and Albanians, are now stuck with mobiles that don’t work.
Oh, they can go and buy new chips from Kosovar providers. For most, it’s a hassle rather than a disaster. But it’s a wasteful and unnecessary hassle.
[Two updates a few days later. First, Post Telecom of Kosovo says that it has supplied more than 2,500 sim cards to Serb enclaves for free and that it is working to offer affordable prices between its Vala network and telephone numbers in Serbia.
[Second, Serbia claims that mobile service has been restored in many regions, and a number of reports confirm this. How they're doing this is unclear. Towers broadcasting from over the border? I'm not an engineer. Anyone who knows more is welcome to comment.]