Here are some things I've recently discovered about telecommunications in Kosovo. [Pause to allow people to run away.] Kosovo doesn't have a country code. Makes sense, right? It isn't a country. Officially, legally, it's still part of Serbia. So it still must use Serbia's country code, 381. This has some interesting consequences.
Here's one: when you call from country A to country B, you accrue two charges. (Or more, but never mind that now.) Your local provider charges you for originating the call, and then the other country's telecom charges you for terminating the call. This is lumped together as a single charge on your bill, so you don't need to worry your pretty little head about the details. After all, if I use Verizon to call London, all I want to know is, how much does it cost? And the answer is -- say -- 10 cents per minute, and I make the call, pay the bill when it comes, and move on. But break that 10 cents per minute open, and it's a sandwich of all sorts of charges. And maybe 3 of those 10 cents are British Telecom's termination fee. (And what happens to those 3 cents? Well, every so often, Verizon tallies up all the calls to British Telecom, and BT does the same for its calls to Verizon. And then they compare the numbers, who owes more to whom, and they "settle". In the old days, this was done between national telcos, and accounts were settled four times per year. Today there are thousands of companies providing international service, and there's a large building in Geneva, Switzerland -- The International Telecommunications Union, or ITU -- full of people making sure it all comes out even.) Okay, so say I call Kosovo. Well, I have to dial 381, right? So the international switching system sends my call to... Serbia. Belgrade, to be precise. Now, at first -- just after the 1999 Kosovo War -- the Serbs were pretty touchy about forwarding calls to Kosovo. In fact, they refused to do it. At first. But then they changed their minds. And now they forward calls to Kosovo pretty conscientiously. Why? Because they get to pocket the termination fees. Three cents a minute, give or take, may not sound like much. But over time, it adds up. The total annual loss to Kosovo is measured, certainly in millions, and probably in tens of millions. -- To be clear: Telecom Serbia also must pay the termination fees for international calls originating in Kosovo. But incoming international calls outnumber outgoing ones by four or five to one. (This is common in developing countries, for a variety of reasons.) So it's a huge net moneymaker. The local Kosovo telecom -- Post and Telecom of Kosovo, or PTK -- protests this vigorously, but there's not much they can do. They applied to the International Telecommunications Union for their own country code, but were rejected. Reasonably enough; they are, after all, not a country. So they have no choice but to sit and fume while Serbia Telecom continues to pocket millions of dollars every year. There is an interesting exception to this, though. Now, note: the following seems to be an urban legend, telecommunications style. I have no idea if it's really true. Two different people have told it to me, but who knows? It could just be nationalist bragging. That happens a lot, around here. So I make no claims that this is true. So: the story is, the Albanians of Albania got tired of seeing calls to their cousins in Kosovo routed through Belgrade. Why should they put money in Serbian pockets whenever they wanted to talk to a friend or relative across the mountains? The whole thing was obviously and grossly unfair, a relic of Serb colonialist oppression. So the main international switch in Tirana got some creative reprogramming. Normally whenever an international switch hears the country code for Serbia -- three, eight, one -- it promptly opens a circuit to Belgrade. But the switch in Tirana doesn't do that. Instead, it waits for the next couple of digits. If they are an area code for Serbia, it switches the call to Belgrade as normal. But if they're an area code for Kosovo, it turns around and sends the call directly to Kosovo. Belgrade never even knows about it. And the Albanian telecom and PTK quietly and discreetly settle termination payments between themselves. Of course, if this is happening, it would be a gross violation of ITU regulations and international telecommunications treaties. So, nobody would care to admit to it publicly. Wherefore I emphasize that this is an urban legend, and to be taken with a grain of salt. Telecommunications: more interesting than I realized. (President Rugova is dead, BTW. I'll try to post on that in the next day or so.)