Every day we hear about new digital technologies and the promises that come with them. The digital world can solve many problems and often does. But we often forget that billions of people have never used the internet. And why not? Because they never had access to it in the first place. Their reality is different.
But Kosovo—one of Europe’s poorest countries—is an exception. In 2018, it started to implement the five-year Kosovo Digital Economy Project (KODE) with World Bank support. Its goal was simple but powerful: to ensure that Kosovars living anywhere in the country would have equal access to digital opportunities, be it for work, education, social services, or entertainment. The project has been a success—
The program attracted private sector investments in villages where previously, few ventured to invest. Now people are moving back to villages from cities because the internet is better there—an important draw during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Connecting every village to the internet
On March 21, 2023, I drove to the remote, picturesque village of Herticë, in northeastern Kosovo, to take part in an event marking a huge achievement—connecting the last village in the country to high-speed internet. It was cold and rainy in Herticë, but everyone was filled with joy and pride. Kids from the local school were running around in black sweatshirts displaying the words Kosovo Connected while politicians, village leaders, and internet operators happily spoke about this accomplishment. World Bank and government representatives collectively pressed a huge, symbolic button to bring broadband to the last unconnected village in the country.
How did Kosovo achieve connectivity for all?
The KODE project provided one-off matching grant payments to internet operators to build their networks in unconnected villages. “Matching” meant only part of the costs was covered—the rest was paid for by internet operators. These co-funded networks were required to deliver high-speed internet (100 Mbps) to every house, school, and health center. Prices were also regulated—they had to be the same as in cities. The government awarded grants to internet operators with the lowest-cost network solutions. The competition was tough: There are more than 60 operators in Kosovo, many of which are local firms. Twenty-one operators won at least one grant.
Thanks to the competition, almost every grant was smaller than planned, leading to savings of 40 percent. Also, many grants were awarded in parallel, which moved network construction along faster. As the program reached more remote villages, the government offered bigger grants to reach them—up to 80 percent. In total, internet operators contributed 30 percent of the financing needed to connect every village. As one operator told me, it was money well spent. Each grant brought in new customers and made it possible to hire more people. Every such hire brings another good quality job to rural Kosovo and boosts the local economy.
Remote villages thrive with connectivity
I once thought that people in villages don’t have much need for the internet. But I was wrong: Nearly every house in every village served by the program opted to subscribe to the internet.Even more so, it was crucial for the population at large during the COVID-19 lockdowns. People were able to receive social services, consult doctors, and children were able to continue with education online. I’ve heard stories of people moving to villages around large cities because the internet is better there—not something you hear often.
When I asked internet operators about what made the program work, they all said it was simple and fast. They also said that because the design was collaborative, they all felt part of it. Everyone truly shared in its success. Competition and parallel deployments brought efficiency to the process. So did the motivated and skilled team at Kosovo’s Ministry of Economy.
Now, the country is ready to move forward on the digital front..