Broadband Connectivity in Macedonian Schools by September 2005

At the beginning of the upcoming school year, all elementary and secondary schools in Macedonia will have broadband internet access. This will be achieved through the efforts of the Macedonia Connects Project, managed by dot-ORG. The project is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), in cooperation with the Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Macedonia. Recent changes in the regulatory environment and an innovative project design have contributed to what is now not simply an initiative to connect schools but a bolder effort to provide affordable broadband connectivity for the entire country by using the school- based network as the cornerstone of the country-wide wireless broadband network.

Schools Celebrate the Arrival of Connectivity before the School Year Starts
On June 7, 2005, the Braka Ramiz-Hamid and Petar Zdrawkovski-Penko Primary schools located approximately 15 km outside of Macedonia’s capital city, Skopje, celebrated the delivery of Wireless Broadband Services. USAID\Macedonia and the Ministry of Education and Science jointly sponsored this event intended to highlight the Macedonia Connects project.

Student communicating with fellow students at another location using videoconferencing and Instant M From Evolving Design to Implementation –Taking advantage of opportunities and addressing key challenges
The Macedonia Connects project was designed initially to complement the E-Schools project managed by dot-EDU. E-Schools would bring the computer labs to the schools and Macedonia Connects would bring internet connectivity to these computer labs in at least 496 primary and secondary schools as well as University sites throughout Macedonia.

Once Macedonia Connects was established in October of 2004, it became clear that so much more was involved than just the delivery of internet connectivity to schools. The policy and regulatory environment was changing, the project evolved to address broadband connectivity throughout the country rather than just in schools, making use of new wireless broadband technology solutions, and the whole endeavor needed to be designed with sustainability in mind.

Policy & Regulatory Environment
The first challenge for Macedonia Connects was to understand the impact of pending changes in the laws regulating telecommunications within Macedonia and the ending of the monopoly status of Macedonian Telecom. Both of these events would influence the writing of the Request for Proposals that would guide the selection of a vendor to provide Internet services to the 496 sites.

If not for the ending of the monopoly status and the creation of new communication laws the Macedonia Connects project would have had a very hard time achieving its objectives. Prior to January 1, 2005, Internet Service Providers had only one choice to obtain their Internet access. The only legal source of Internet access was Maktel, the monopoly operator. Maktel had pushed the price for connectivity so high that ISPs could not establish any type of profit margin. This high price of connectivity largely contributed to the low Internet penetration rate within Macedonia, reported to be 8%.

The ending of the Maktel monopoly, combined with the new telecommunications law assured present and future ISPs the ability to enter into agreements with ISPs from adjacent countries such as Kosovo, Albania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece. As a result, bandwidth pricing would decline by as much as 66-75% if vendors were not tied to Maktel and the overall pricing structures to consumers would decline accordingly.

More than School Connectivity
Initially, dot-ORG responded to a request from USAID/Macedonia to provide broadband connectivity to schools throughout Macedonia to complement efforts of the USAID-funded dot-EDU/ e-Schools project.

After careful analysis, dot-ORG determined that this project could do much more than provide broadband connectivity to a select number of schools. While the schools could serve as an initial footprint for connectivity and a way to leverage a large client base for an Internet Service Provider (ISP), a paradigm shift would be achieved if these schools were viewed as "points of presence" instead. As “points of presence, the schools could be used by the selected vendor as a springboard to build upon once the distribution infrastructure was established. For the selected ISP and for Macedonia Connects, this would represent a win-win situation. This evolution in thinking and vision enabled the project to take on the more ambitious objective of delivering broadband connectivity throughout Macedonia, including the most rural areas.

The Tender
This evolution of the vision meant that the RFP for these services had to take into account a desire to build out a nationwide network and select a vendor capable of designing and delivering the services for something that did not exist. The ultimate goal was to hit a target, in this case low cost services, while building out a network that would exceed the financial capabilities for any ISP in Macedonia.

The other innovative approach for the RFP process was that it would subsidize services rather than purchase equipment. One dilemma for Macedonia Connects was that there were only 5 ISPs in Macedonia plus a small number of companies which through partnership with an ISP would be able to meet the requirements of the RFP. Another, perhaps more critical issue was that there was no way to determine whether the resulting cost for connectivity would be affordable since there was no history of a free market for Internet pricing. Finally, the need to exclude Maktel from the RFP process would likely create tensions and possible lead Maktel to try to derail the efforts of Macedonia Connects.

The later concern came true when Maktel announced in early February that they would provide free DSL services to 350 schools throughout Macedonia with the support of the Ministry of Education and Sciences.

Macedonia Connects moved ahead with the tender process and received four high quality responses to the RFP. After an extensive review by an independent panel, Macedonia Connects selected on April 27. Since April, has finalized connectivity for 20 schools, visited every primary and secondary school on the Macedonia Connects list, and has assured the project that connectivity for all sites will be completed by August 15, 2005.

Macedonia Connects is so much more than just a school connectivity project. At the end of the project, the following achievements will have been realized:
  • The entire country will be covered with some form of wireless connectivity;
  • The cost for consumer connectivity will be as low as 9-15 Euro (~$11-18) and commercial accounts will cost as little as 50 Euro (~$60)
  • Each point of presence established under this project will enable additional connectivity other than the schools and we expect to see an exponential increase in the use of the Internet throughout the Republic of Macedonia.
What’s the Technology Behind it?
In support of the Macedonia Connects project, is deploying the Motorola Canopy solution as the backbone to distribute broadband connectivity throughout the country. In addition, they will deploy a MESH Wireless solution in the six most populated cities in Macedonia. This MESH solution is WIFI compliant and will provide nearly 100% WIFI coverage in these six cities. This means that people with WIFI enabled laptops and desktops will be able to access the Internet wirelessly. In addition, a WIFI repeater will be installed at each of the 531 locations that includes primary, secondary, university and local government offices as part of the main delivery of services within the Macedonia Connects project.

Sustainability Strategies
Working with a broad range of constituencies
By the start of the school year 2005 Internet access will be live but that is only the beginning of our work at Macedonia Connects as the project is also responsible for establishing an E- literacy campaign that will target various constituencies such as local governments, NGOs, schools and consumers. The project will also work with the ISP to make certain that the needs of these users are understood well and to establish a marketing plan to ensure that those groups have increased access to Internet resources.

Macedonia Connects has two positions on staff specifically targeted towards "marketing" internet connectivity solutions to five very specific constituencies - schools, NGO/nonprofit organizations, small business owners and home consumers. The Connectivity/Applications director is responsible for developing the "PUSH" by working with the selected ISP to provide services that are specifically targeted at these five constituencies. The Communications Director is responsible for creating the "PULL" and will work with the same constituencies by going into the field and extolling the virtues of internet service offerings. In addition, this person will create publications illustrating IT success stories and the need to be E-literate.

Affordable connectivity beyond 2007
Macedonia Connects is bringing free connectivity to schools from the start of the 2005 school year through September 30th, 2007. One of the challenges of the project has been to create a solution for the delivery of broadband access that would be sustainable beyond the initial period of subsidy. The cost of connectivity per school for 2007 is estimated at $19-25 Euros per month and the cost of connectivity for home access for teachers and students will be between 9 and 14 Euros per month. It was essential for the project to create a solution that would not result in costs that would exceed the financial resources of the schools.

In addition, by September 2007, school expenses will be covered by the municipalities as part of an effort to decentralize government services. This will present some interesting challenges for the schools and municipalities since the municipalities have no history of managing school budgets.

For More Information, Contact:
Glenn Strachan
Chief of Party, Macedonia Connects
Academy for Educational Development
Tel: 202-884-8108

Related DOT-COM Activity
Macedonia Connects
Related DOT-COMments Newsletter Articles
Related Links
Click on USAID's logo to visit USAID
Click on Internews Network logo, to visit Internews
Click on Academy for Educational Development (AED) logo to visit AED
Click on Educational Development Center (EDC) logo to visit EDC
Core funding for the DOT-COM Alliance is provided by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Bureau for Economic Growth, Agriculture & Trade, Office of Infrastructure and Engineering (EGAT/OI&E), Office of Education (EGAT/ED), and Office of Women in Development (EGAT/WID), under the terms of Award numbers: GDG-A-00-01-00009-00, dot-GOV; GDG-A-00-01-00014-00, dot-ORG; GDG-A-00-01-00011-00, dot-EDU.
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