From conflict to cooperation: Building a digital highway across the Western Balkans
Natalija Gelvanovska-Garcia, Senior ICT Policy Specialist, World Bank
The Balkans often evoke images of conflict and fragmentation. But on the digital front, countries across Southeast Europe are working together to build robust broadband network connecting millions—helping drive economic growth and innovation.
I’ve seen this firsthand through the Balkans Digital Highway Initiative, a collaborative project supported by the World Bank. Launched in 2017, the project supports the development of regulatory frameworks that enable infrastructure sharing across the region. Specifically, it allows transmission system operators—entities that are responsible for operating, maintaining, and developing high-voltage electricity transmission networks—to share their physical infrastructure to improve digital connectivity.
The Baltic countries lead the way
I experienced the value of this same approach in my own country, Lithuania. About 10 years ago, the three Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) initiated the Baltic Digital Highway project to connect their broadband networks and data centers to Western Europe’s data hub. This initiative pioneered infrastructure sharing by laying high-capacity fiber-optic cable over high-voltage power lines owned by energy companies, creating a regional infrastructure system that improved broadband services.
My colleagues and I thought the Western Balkans region—Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia—could greatly benefit from a similar initiative. Harmonizing telecommunications regulations with EU standards was already underway, and energy firms owned fiber-optic assets that can reduce broadband costs and expand digital services to rural areas. My colleague Zhenia Viatchaninova and I shared our thoughts on this in a blog post seven years ago, so it’s gratifying to see these ideas coming to fruition across Southeast Europe.
A digital backbone
What we have been advocating for in the Western Balkans is creating a “digital backbone,” a network infrastructure that allows data to be transmitted across vast distances at high-speed. It uses fiber-optic cables for fast, reliable internet connections that governments, businesses, educational institutions, and the public need to function. In the modern world, digital technology is a precondition for economic development.
Strong digital backbones strengthen national security, resilience to shocks, and regional cooperation. Critically, they help bridge the digital divide by making vital digital services available to everyone.
But developing such a digital backbone across the Western Balkans has faced numerous obstacles. First, building a digital backbone is expensive: governments don’t have the necessary resources, so private sector financing is essential. Second, the existing telecommunications infrastructure is patchy and inadequate for a modern regional digital backbone. Infrastructure sharing can speed up the development of digital networks while significantly reducing costs and environmental impacts—a plus for any country that’s serious about climate change. Third, regulatory barriers within the region make it challenging to put a unified digital backbone in place. Standardizing regulations within the region—and with Europe—is crucial.
The Balkans Digital Highway Initiative
In advancing efforts towards creating a digital backbone, Public-Private Infrastructure Advisory Facility (PPIAF) support has enabled digital infrastructure through mapping, analyzing legislation, and developing regional sharing approaches. PPIAF has also provided a collaborative platform for governments, transmission system operators, and other stakeholders to engage with each other.
Progress is already tangible. KOSTT, an independent power transmission system operator in Kosovo, has commercialized its fiber optic network and plans to modernize its telecommunications equipment. MEPSO, North Macedonia’s state-owned electricity transmission system operator, amended the country’s energy law to enable infrastructure sharing. In 2022, it completed the modernization of its telecommunications network and plans to connect it to Albania and Greece. With World Bank support, Albania operationalized infrastructure sharing in 2020 and entered into its first commercial agreements. And Montenegro’s Crnogorski Elektroprenosni Sistem (CGES) has reduced service prices and is on track to modernize its telecommunications network to improve efficiency and effectiveness for its customers.
But the biggest accomplishment through PPIAF is getting regional players to sit at the same table and collaborate. As one representative from MEPSO told me, “The problem before was that we had never met to discuss opportunities for digital collaboration.” Now stakeholders across the region have developed personal connections, stimulating information sharing and knowledge exchange, while Baltic nations have provided vital advice and neighboring players from Italy, Greece, Romania, and Bulgaria expressed interest in participating.
While much remains to be accomplished, this initiative lays the groundwork for a bright digital future that promises actual results for citizens and businesses. It also aligns well with the EU’s priorities for the Western Balkans region, supporting the EU’s efforts to improve economic and social development in the region and ultimately fostering better integration with Europe. The project is also highly replicable. With support from the Quality Infrastructure Investment (QII) Partnership, the World Bank is looking to expand the program into Central Asia. I hope that the countries of the Western Balkans will play a similar mentoring in other regions that share the goal of building digital backbones to support their development.