“И чист воздух и бесплатен Интернет” or “Fresh air and free Internet” reads one of the online news articles publicizing the launch of the first of 680 wi-fi Internet access kiosks in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. In simple terms, this title sums up the positive benefits of a government Wi-Fi Kiosk Project that provides free access to e-government services, news, social networks and web search in the most remote and rural parts of the country.
At the entrance to Algunja, a tiny village of around 240 inhabitants located in Staro Nagoricane municipality to the north east of Skopje, the road was barely passable, so we had to change cars to drive up the steep hills leading to the satellite school where one of the Wi-Fi kiosks is located. The few houses we saw on our way up looked modest and confirmed what we know from statistics: compared to their urban counterparts, FYR Macedonia’s rural households have lower incomes, higher levels of unemployment and they possess fewer durable goods, such as mobile phones or home computers.
The school we arrived at appeared in urgent need of cladding, sewage upgrade and window heat insulation. The funds to do the necessary repairs, it seems, are unavailable – which is sadly often the case for schools with a small student population. Closing schools with fewer students and remapping children to larger schools may seem a pragmatic solution, but such proposals are highly unpopular with the local population.
Schools in remote areas like Algunja not only play an educational function, but they also connect the local population to the outside, modern world. Thanks to the wi-fi kiosk located on the school premises, houses within a 100-meter perimeter of the school receive free connectivity.
FYR Macedonia’s vast mountainous terrain and low population density mean that commercial broadband Internet rollout in the country is challenging. Because of this, the Ministry of Information Society and Administration (MISA) decided to bring connectivity to rural areas using the existing wi-fi canopy infrastructure, put in place and commercialized through USAID’s “Macedonia Connects” project in 2007. Although outdated today, technologically speaking, the canopy solution still enables the majority of the country’s rural schools to be connected to the Internet with speeds of up to 1 Mbps. For many areas that have no Internet Service Provider or an intermittent power supply, this is quite welcome. Indeed, it is not uncommon to see children congregate near kiosks to do their homework.
The Wi-Fi Kiosk project pursues multiple objectives that are united under one overarching goal: to bring “the information society” to rural areas. Asked by the Ministry to perform an independent assessment of the project, the World Bank collected data from end-users, government representatives and private sector stakeholders. While progress on some of the project’s objectives has not been measured to date, our team found that overall the government intervention had a positive effect on local rural development and actually went beyond the results initially foreseen, which include:
- Local schools with poor connectivity, or no connectivity at all, were able to access free broadband for educational and administration purposes. Wi-fi kiosks supplied Internet access to 115 schools that faced fixed-line connectivity issues in the 2013-14 school year.
- According to our survey, approximately 39 percent of locals used the WiFi kiosks in the villages were they were installed, but many more people (around 83 percent), including those in villages without kiosks, believe there is a strong demand for them locally.
- The kiosks have allowed rural inhabitants to browse the Internet and get information quickly about things they need, to acquire valuable information on relevant topics, to access information on political processes or to participate in democratic processes, and to communicate with others. In fact, communication with friends and relatives is becoming all the more important in light of substantial outward migration flows by people facing economic hardship.
- The local population has received access to e-government services and public information which has reduced costs for both the government and end-users: one operator has reported that more than 60 percent of all websites visited recently were those of public institutions.
The project was initially planned for four years and is about to discontinue. In certain areas, private operators have filled the gap and have found a business case to start providing Internet access. However, in 522 out of 680 locations, high deployment and maintenance costs still pose constraints to commercial Internet access development.
The World Bank team is concerned that a number of locations with zero broadband coverage available commercially will be subjected suddenly to “Internet blackout”, as the kiosk in Algunja will be discontinued in mid-August 2014. The government has put a great deal of effort into bringing connectivity to some truly “disconnected” areas, which has yielded real and visible benefits.
Undoubtedly, one should not stop at this point: more effort is required to ensure that the results achieved by the project are sustained beyond its four-year lifespan.
This story was prepared by Natalija Gelvanovska and Zhenia Viatchaninova, who both work for the World Bank’s Transport & ICT Global Practice. The authors are grateful to Anita Bozinovska and Artan Saliu from the World Bank Country Office in FYR Macedonia for providing translations into Macedonian and Albanian languages.