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Serbia and beyond: the next stages for 5G and digitisation

Vladimir Lucic Telekom Srbija.jpg
Vladimir Lučić

Telekom Srbija is planning ahead for next year's expected 5G launch in Serbia, which it aims to harness to spur digitisation there and in other countries. The company's CEO, Vladimir Lučić, talks of the future opportunities opened up by these developments and Telekom Srbija's current expansion in the region.

What’s the current picture for 5G rollout in your region and how will it be funded?

A 5G spectrum auction is expected in Serbia in 2023, for which we are preparing. We then hope to implement our network based on the technology there by the end of next year. While we plan to put a big focus on that rollout, we are also aiming to introduce 5G in Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

This endeavour will be an important building block to construct a bright digital future throughout the Western Balkans and beyond. In line with this and in recognition of our position as a key market leader, the European Investment Bank announced last December that it would grant Telekom Srbija a €70 million loan for the rollout of 5G and extension of 4G across Serbia.

That deployment will help enable 60% of Serbia’s residents to gain access to 5G, enhance the experience of users in rural areas, and boost innovation and the country’s resilience to crises like the Covid-19 pandemic.

In addition, our corporate venture capital fund, TS Ventures, will bolster investment in 5G by allocating €25 million over the next four years to nurture promising start-ups offering advanced digital services. Through that fund, Telekom Srbija will continue to invest in multiple business areas in 2023, including AI, big data, fintech, e-commerce, IoT, adtech, software-as-a-service and blockchain technology.

Can you tell us a bit about your recent growth plans in other countries and how these complement your future-looking moves towards digital transformation?

We are currently undergoing a period of significant expansion across Europe and the globe, opening up high-quality services to a wider cross-section of people as the world undergoes digitalisation. We launched mobile telephony services in Switzerland and North Macedonia in October, and are planning additional service launches in Germany, the US and Canada in 2023.

The expansion in North Macedonia further grows our service footprint in the Western Balkans, a region where we are already at the forefront of the industry. It is tailored to the demands and characteristics of the local telecoms market, with mobile telephony, internet and TV packages offered, alongside the delivery of exclusive content.

Meanwhile, the launch in Switzerland fits with Telekom Srbija’s goal of meeting needs in countries around the world with a large diaspora from the Western Balkans. As part of this, customers in Switzerland are charged no extra cost for data roaming in the EU, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina or Montenegro. That serves to maximise our reach among people who need services to the region.

What changes are you making to your infrastructure to prepare for 5G?

Since Telekom Srbija Group was established in 1997, we have consolidated our position as the largest telecommunications and multimedia provider in Serbia, and as a major player in South-East Europe.

In assuming this prominent role and backing the drive towards ‘Serbia 2.0’, we have a duty to ensure that our infrastructure can deliver the digital services that people need in an accessible way as we prepare for the dawn of 5G in the country next year.

To bolster existing services ahead of that and extend our reach, we invested a record amount in infrastructure in 2021. This included setting up more than 1,200 4G base stations in Serbia alone, while we have also ramped up fibre-optic access.

When we later enhance our network with 5G, it will help us to increase the efficiency of our operations, optimise costs and improve customer experience in the coming years. Ultimately, it will also aid the transformation of Serbia’s economy and society in line with the priorities outlined in the country’s Digital Agenda.

What else is Telekom Srbija doing to develop 5G and overall digital transformation, and what benefits will this activity bring to consumers and businesses?

We also struck up a strategic partnership with Vodafone towards the end of last year that covers Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia- Herzegovina. This will provide Telekom Srbija with access to all-important resources and knowledge in the realm of digital transformation, gaining the benefit of its partner’s extensive experience and expertise in procurement.

The implementation of 5G overall, alongside the 4G expansion, will provide multiple transformational benefits. It will give residents in both urban and rural areas faster internet access and better access to premium content. It will also improve the competitiveness of local companies by enhancing their ability to provide advanced digital services.

Furthermore, these developments will support the changes in the Serbian economy, which is in the midst of a major transformation into an innovation-based environment. ICT is the economy’s fastest-growing sector, with exports in that segment on course to exceed €2.5 billion this year and the number of employees in the ICT sector now totalling 95,500. The transition has already changed citizens’ quality of life in the country’s ICT centres, such as capital Belgrade and the city of Novi Sad.

And the opportunities for 5G to continue transforming consumers’ day-to-day lives into the future are numerous. These range from remote online banking and shopping for people living in rural areas to online learning and teleworking as a cost-effective solution for parents looking after their children at home.

As the world navigates the energy crisis, what impact do you expect 5G to have on sustainability?

We view 5G and the related digital opportunities as forming a key part of the drive towards a more sustainable future for Serbian society. The technology will enable us to improve the efficiency of our own operations, while optimising costs and unlocking huge scope for businesses, public bodies and individuals to free up resources for other tasks.

Sustainability will also be aided partly by the greater globalisation of the country, the region and its people facilitated by the new technology. 5G will continue the trend towards ever-improving digital communications over the years, making it far easier for people to connect with the Serbian diaspora, and allowing business colleagues, friends and families to communicate without travelling huge distances.

All this can help contribute to lower carbon footprints and less consumption of energy resources – meaning that investing in 5G can form one of the prongs towards a greener and more resilient tomorrow for our customers, investors and partners. This is particularly important in the current climate, when we face an energy crisis that’s having a big impact on many people.

Looking to the future, what advantages do you see in developing technologies like IoT as 5G continues to evolve over time?

IoT is a rapidly growing digital segment and we want to be well-prepared as it rises to become the norm in daily lives. With this in mind, Telekom Srbija has already been developing infrastructure optimised for IoT services via a LoRa network.

The network represents a basis for the development of IoT ecosystems to aid the digital transformation of society as a whole. We are keen for the technology to be harnessed as a platform for the creation of new products and services, and to aid the optimisation of business operations.

In line with this, a number of successful projects are already under way in this area in cooperation with the public sector and businesses. We see many potential applications for IoT, such as smart-city services, security monitoring for property and infrastructure, remote control of household appliances, and remote reading and management of utility meters. In rural areas, we also expect a rising adoption of e-agriculture, whereby networks of sensors are used to monitor crops and weather in fields.

All in all, we believe that IoT brings significant scope for the development of multiple other services on top of 5G and to maximise the technology’s potential. And that potential is something that we at Telekom Srbija are keen to maximise for the benefit of the economy and society as a whole.