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Balkan Mobile Users Roam Freely – Unless They’re in Kosovo

During the second Western Balkans Digital Summit in the Serbian capital Belgrade in 2019, six Balkan nations committed themselves to providing their citizens with a consistent mobile internet experience throughout the region. 

This commitment pledged equivalency in cost, quality and speed of mobile internet services with domestic services, with a clear stipulation of no surcharges. The ultimate goal was to render mobile data usage within the region effectively free of extra cost – essentially mirroring domestic retail rates for calls, messages, and data.

The Regional Roaming Agreement – a so-called ‘roam-like-at-home’ scheme like the one that operates within the European Union – is considered to be a significant achievement of the Digital Agenda for the Western Balkans, the EU-backed digital transformation project for the region, because it promotes regional cooperation and alignment with the EU’s regulatory framework on roaming.

But despite these progressive intentions, two years into this agreement, many Western Balkan consumers continue to face extra charges when using mobile data in other countries in the region.

While the initiative seems good for most of the Western Balkans, Kosovo’s mobile users cannot use their cellphones throughout Kosovo itself – although they can use them roaming in other Western Balkans countries. 

Kosovo has a total of three telecommunications companies, but none of them can function properly throughout the country’s territory due to the ongoing conflict with Serbia. 

Coverage limited in northern Kosovo

All telecoms operators from Serbia told BIRN that the implementation of the roam-like-at-home agreement functions in Kosovo similarly to the way it does in other countries. 

However, Ipko Communications, a major mobile provider in Kosovo, only has an agreement with the A1 mobile provider in Serbia, while Telekom Kosovo, operating as Vala, has agreements with all operators in the Western Balkans except for Serbia, where it only has an agreement with Yettel. This means that when they are in Serbia, Vala or Ipko users can use their phone only when connected to the network of the one company with which Vala or Ipko have a contract.

Three companies operate in Kosovo — IPKO Communications, Vala (Telekom Kosovo), and MTS DOO, an affiliate of Telekom Srbija that operates in the northern part of Kosovo where the majority of the population are Serbs.

Kosovo’s Regulatory Authority of Electronic and Postal Communications, ARKEP, told BIRN that MTS DOO “has a temporary and limited authorisation to extend the infrastructure issued by ARKEP, based on the Telecommunications Agreement, and offers services only in certain areas where the Serbian community lives, and mainly in the north of the country”.

The Telecommunications Agreement referred to by ARKEP was first signed by Kosovo and Serbia in Brussels in 2013 as part of their EU-mediated dialogue to normalise relations, followed by an action plan on telecommunications that was signed in 2015.      

MTS however “has no right to expand/extend the mobile phone network”, ARKEP told BIRN.

Users of Kosovo’s telecommunications operators can use their phones in other Balkan countries in accordance with the roam-like-at-home agreement, in the same way that Serbian users can in Kosovo.

Northern Kosovo is an exception, however. Mobile operators in Kosovo, excluding MTS DOO, have limited coverage in the northern, Serb-majority municipalities, resulting in restricted or completely disabled telecommunications services. 

One man from Belgrade, Vuk V., who didn’t want his full name to be made public, said he spent several days in Kosovo last month, travelling from the north to Prizren and Pristina.     

“At no point was it possible to use Serbian MTS [the Serbian provider rather than the service for north Kosovo provided by MTS DOO], while Kosovo networks could be used but with a tariff that was not explained anywhere. In some parts of Kosovo, there was no signal for any of the networks,” he said. 

MTS DOO did not respond to BIRN’s questions. 

Kosovo citizens often face difficulties in the four Serb-majority municipalities in the north of the country due to the limited coverage offered there by Kosovo telecom companies Vala and Ipko. It is often not possible to connect to the MTS DOO network for those who have a mobile phone number from either Vala and Ipko. Because the area is within Kosovo, roaming does not function either. 

When a BIRN reporter visited the north of Kosovo, she had to purchase an MTS DOO simcard. However, whenever there are sudden escalations of tensions in the north of Kosovo, it becomes difficult to buy MTS DOO simcards or internet packages. 

Vala told BIRN that in the northern municipalities of Mitrovica e Veriut, Zvecan, Leposaviq/Leposavic and Zubin Potok, the Vala (Kosovo Telecom) mobile service does not work due to limited network coverage in these areas. 

Vala said that the following coverage is available in northern Kosovo:

  • Zubin Potok: Most parts of the city, Lake Ujmani and the road to the border crossing point in Bernjak have 3G coverage. The border point in Bernjak has 4G coverage. Internet and IPTV service are available at specific institutions in Bernjak, such as Kosovo Customs, the Post Office and Raiffeisen Bank. 
  • Leposaviq/Leposavic: The border point in Jarinje, a section of the Jarinje- Leposaviq/Leposavic road, and a section of the Mitrovica- Leposaviq/Leposavic road have 3G coverage. However, the town of Leposaviq/Leposavic itself does not have reliable 3G coverage, and 4G technology has not been implemented yet. Cable internet is not available in the municipality. 
  • Zvecan: Zvecan has partial coverage from base stations in Mitrovica, but the city itself does not have satisfactory coverage. There is no cable internet coverage in Zvecan. 
  • Mitrovica: The municipality is mostly covered by new technologies from base stations in South Mitrovica. However, one base station within the municipality only operates with 2G technology. There is partial cable network coverage and fixed services in certain areas and institutions, such as the neighbourhood of Boshnjakeve.

As Vala explained, Kosovo Telecom has an agreement with Serbian companies for international roaming, but this agreement only allows roaming services within Serbia, not within Kosovo. 

“Therefore, [users of] Vala numbers can only use mobile phone services via roaming in the territory of Serbia, where their roaming partner has network coverage,” the company said.

ARKEP told BIRN that “mobile operators Kosovo Telecom (Vala) and IPKO have the authorisation from ARKEP to extend the infrastructure and provide services throughout the territory of the Republic of Kosovo, including the northern municipalities”. 

In February 2023, ARKEP also gave additional capacities – 800MHz and 3.5GHz frequency bands – to Kosovo Telekom and IPKO.

Vala said that investments are being made by Kosovo Telecom to modernise its network and expand coverage to areas including the four Serb-majority municipalities in northern Kosovo.

ARKEP said that during the second part of 2022 and the beginning of 2023, “there has been an effort and a joint plan of operators with support from the Ministry of Economy and the Ministry of Internal Affairs, for investments in the northern part, for which several masts and base stations for providing services have been established”. 

“Also when it comes to the extension of the mobile phone infrastructure in the northern part of the country, operators also need additional security for their infrastructure, since at various times their telecommunications infrastructure has been deliberately damaged by unscrupulous persons,” ARKEP said. 

In 2010, some of IPKO’s infrastructure in the north of Kosovo was damaged. However, IPKO did not respond to BIRN’s questions regarding the current situation in the northern municipalities by the time of publication.

When ‘free’ doesn’t mean free

While the roam-like-at-home initiative says that the same package rates should apply when used at home or when when travelling to other Western Balkan countries, data usage is limited to amounts significantly lower than in the country of the mobile user’s origin. 

The roam-like-at-home initiative implemented in the Western Balkans from July 1, 2021, was envisaged as a pathway to making the region free of roaming charges. This step was part of a grander scheme to prepare the region for a similar arrangement with EU member countries in autumn 2023. 

The roam-like-at-home initiative limits a roaming call’s cost to a maximum of 19 euro cents per minute, the cost of an SMS to six euro cents, and data transmission to 18 euro cents (all prices excluding VAT). But these rules exist more on paper than in practice.

BIRN sought answers from national regulatory authorities and mobile operators in each Western Balkan country to decipher the reasons behind the persistent additional charges still plaguing many users while using roaming within the region.

Calls and SMS messages are treated the same when roaming as they are at home, and users can fully utilise the allocated amount within their tariff package, the regulatory authorities said. Once the allocated amount is exhausted, calls and text messages are charged according to their telecommunications operator’s domestic price list. 

However, when it comes to data transmission when roaming within the Western Balkans region, a different approach is implemented. Depending on their tariff package, users are granted a specific quota for data transmission within the region.

For example, if a user is in any of the Western Balkan countries and makes a call to a number in Montenegro, regardless of which Montenegrin mobile provider the number belongs to, the minutes used are deducted from the package allocated for calls to other networks. If those minutes are used up, the call is charged according to the price list for calls to other networks in Montenegro provided by its mobile operator. The same principle applies to SMS messages to numbers in Montenegro. 

When it comes to enjoying the benefits of ‘roam-like-at-home’ in Western Balkan countries, whichever foreign network is chosen when roaming, the same benefits apply because all operators comply with the Regional Roaming Agreement.

The rules of the roam-like-at-home initiative also include a policy of appropriate use. Users should be aware of limitations regarding data transmission services in regional roaming for specific domestic tariff packages, where there is a specified amount of data that users can use in regional roaming. If this limit is exceeded, an additional roaming fee is incurred.

This mechanism aims to prevent misuse and inappropriate use of data transmission, the regulatory authorities said. The quota is defined based on the guidelines outlined in the Rulebook on the Application of the Appropriate Use Policy which was adopted as part of the Regional Roaming Agreement. 

For example, using roaming in another Western Balkans for at least four months, rather than starting to use the country’s own mobile providers, would be seen as inappropriate use. 

In such cases, the mobile operator warns the user and provides a 15-day deadline to change their usage pattern. After this period, the operator can start charging an additional roaming fee based on the domestic retail price of mobile communication network services. 

This fee is discontinued as soon as the user’s consumption no longer indicates any risk of misuse or inappropriate use of regional roaming services, based on indicators determined under the Regional Roaming Agreement by the Regulation on the Implementation of the Policy of Appropriate Use. 

The limits to roaming

The Montenegrin Agency for Electronic Communications and Postal Services said the Regional Roaming Agreement’s Fair Usage Policy should allow roaming service providers to prevent malicious or excessive use of roaming services, ensuring that roaming is used solely for periodic travel purposes.      

The Regional Roaming Agreement sets out pre-defined and binding rules for consumption, tariffing, terms and conditions and traffic volumes in the Western Balkans. All operators in the region must adjust their prices and terms for using roaming services in Western Balkan countries based on the prescribed prices and conditions outlined by the regulations adopted under the agreement. 

Bosnian mobile operator HT Eronet told BIRN that there are significant costs associated with roaming services, and the Bosnian regulator has defined the charging and cost structure that it can implement. 

If a user’s domestic tariff includes a specific amount of minutes, text messages or data traffic to other mobile networks in Bosnia and Herzegovina, those resources will be used up in the same way on roaming as at home. In all six countries, certain tariffs or options provide users with a defined quantity of data traffic for roaming in Western Balkan countries without additional roaming fees. 

Montenegrin mobile operator One Montenegro said that the national electronic communications service regulators in the countries signed up to the roam-like-at-home agreement are responsible for implementing and monitoring the agreement’s enforcement. 

The regulations of the Regional Roaming Agreement establish maximum prices and define formulas that operators must use when creating service packages which can be used in Western Balkan countries. 

The Serbian regulator, the Regulatory Agency for Electronic Communications and Postal Services, RATEL, said that the limit on the number of days during which customers can use roam-like-at-home services aligns with the fair usage policies of operators to prevent abusive or abnormal use of roaming services. 

That means mobile operators offer roaming services with packages at domestic prices only for occasional travels to other Western Balkan countries.

The Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications, the umbrella body representing telecommunications regulators in EU states, said it is “regularly collecting data regarding the roaming market in [the Western Balkans] and publishing a monitoring report which is an analysis of the data received”.

It added that it has not received any complaints.

Source : Balkan Insight