Ingeborg Øfsthus, CEO Of Telenor Serbia:

Digitalization Is A Win-Win Process

Enabling every citizen to have access to government information and services on their mobile phones, anytime and anywhere, would significantly save time and money. For Telenor, it could create more work and be a source of growth

Telenor wants to be its customers’ favourite digital partner in this so-called fourth revolution journey. Some significant steps have already been taken, as we work hard to transform our business from traditional telco to become a digital service provider, says Ingeborg Øfsthus, CEO of Telenor Serbia.

In this interview, Ms Øfsthus speaks about how digitisation may inspire more transparent communication between the Government and citizens, as well as promoting growth of the business sector. She also talks about Telenor’s expectations regarding the new Law on Electronic Communications.

When it comes to digitisation, as the fourth industrial revolution, which areas would you single out as being the most important for Serbia?
I would single out connectivity and people having the advantage of using its full potential. That is not specific just for Serbia – digitisation brings access, relevant services and growth everywhere in the world, and we are witnessing the immense impact that it has on people’s everyday lives.
Let me share some examples – Telenor has covered the whole of Serbia with fast mobile internet. With the increasing penetration of mobile phones, more and more people are connected, having small PCs in their hands. This is significantly upgrading the efficiency of iterations between state institutions and citizens, with more being done on mobile devices instead of waiting in long queues. It also increases the transparency of the state administration and, furthermore, the trust of future investors. Other examples are methods of payment. Digitisation brings easier and simpler ways of payment and opens trade towards the rest of the world. People make online transactions and accept it as a safe method of payment. This certainly has to be empowered by the education of people on this topic. But just imagine how a small enterprise from Serbia can benefit and grow from running its business online – from marketing and payment methods to product placement – much easier and cheaper than via physical distribution.

Alongside eGovernment, you recently also spoke about the development of mGovernment. Could you tell us how much the introduction of eGovernment and the development mGovernment would contribute to raising efficiency in the work of companies and in the everyday lives of citizens?
It would contribute a lot, especially to a higher quality of life for citizens. We at Telenor see this issue as a way of running a country in a more efficient way and with the highest level of transparency.
Today mobile phone penetration is 129%, which means that we already have a channel to reach all citizens, including groups that are traditionally difficult to reach, such as those in rural areas, senior citizens etc. Enabling electronic services on mobile devices – mGovernment – would give every citizen access to government information and services, anytime and anywhere. If citizens could do everything via their mobile phones, that would significantly save their time and money. Wouldn’t it be truly amazing if they are able to pay all taxes, fees and public services in a way that ensures they are not obliged to provide paper evidence?
Speaking from Telenor’s perspective, it would benefit us in two ways: it would be easier for us to run our business, but also it could create more work for us and be a source of growth. If we had easily-accessible relevant information and also digital and distance communication with the authorities, then businesses would have seriously reduced costs and increased profits. Additionally, with a central data registry, many of the present administrative procedures would be unnecessary, not to mention the savings in time and reductions in the use of paper.

There are three specific areas that the new Law on Electronic Communications could regulate: cross border data, a predictable business environment and digital contracts and channels of communication towards the customers

What are your expectations in this context when it comes to the new Law on Electronic Communications?
We at Telenor have high expectations regarding the new Law on Electronic Communications. Its solid implementation could contribute to establishing a level playing field in the market and bring an end to some important challenges that telco operators face while doing business in Serbia.
There are three specific areas that this Law could regulate: cross border data, a predictable business environment and digital contracts and channels of communication towards customers. Since we at Telenor have international experience on all of these topics, we have offered our expertise and knowledge to the regulatory bodies and have dynamic discussions on a daily basis.

Why does the cross-border transfer of data represent a challenge not only for Serbia, but also for other countries; and what do you consider as being effective solutions in this area?
The experience we have from other markets shows that cross-border data transfer is an important enabler for future technology – like cloud technology – and it is vital to stay in technological development. Our recommendation is to follow the EU model on this issue and ensure that traffic data is not excluded from the definition of personal data. But the EU framework needs to be truly harmonised, down to its basic definitions.
We currently have many limitations of what we can do, because of a different interpretation of what personal data is in Serbia compared with EU legislation. This proves that the devil is truly in the details.
Our industry is moving more and more towards the cloud platform. However, there is a myth that you have better protection if data is stored in your country; that data is safer within the borders. This is incorrect. Hackers know no borders. We need to be able to utilise technology like cloud and regional solutions at a competitive cost in order to deliver competitive services – not only with our local competitors, but also with global players like Google, Facebook and Viber.
We are ready to guarantee high privacy and security levels for data and network equipment that are in line with current EU practices. Still, we are aware of legitimate concerns regarding national security and customer privacy and we are fully prepared to address and discuss this with the authorities, for the benefit of our customers. That is also our responsibility.

To what extent is the telecoms sector exposed to the introduction of unpredicted charges and what does the new law offer in this regard?
I must say that we see improvement when it comes to unpredicted charges, especially in the telco sector. However, there are still too many parafiscal charges in place across all industries, 403 to be exact. And this is not just Telenor’s assumption – it is also one of the conclusions contained in the recently launched FIC White Book.
We will continue to invest to develop new technologies and services for the growing needs of our customers. In order to do so, the business environment has to be predictable and so we are welcoming the new Law on Fees to control parafiscal charges.

Telenor contributes the most to the development of entrepreneurship in Serbia by enabling companies to run their business while at the same time challenging and inspiring them

In which areas will Telenor invest the most in the coming period?
In further digitisation of the society, as that is the only way for us to realise our ambition of becoming our customers’ favourite digital partner. That means we will continue our 4G roll out which is, undoubtedly, our future technology. 4G is now available in more than 65 cities and towns across Serbia, and we will cover half of the population by the end of the year, which is basically very soon.
We need a strong, seamless network backbone that will support all the digital services we are, and will be, offering our customers. And we need to continue seeking new solutions, stepping out of the box and experimenting. That creates new prospects for us and directs us towards new investments. One of the examples is the just recently achieved mobile internet speed of 1 Gbps on a 5G test – the highest speed achieved in Serbia.

You said recently that Serbia has a fantastic pool of talent in the IT sector, which Telenor has taken advantage of to staff its branches in other parts of Europe. Are those talented people sufficiently utilised?

To answer this question I will draw on my experience as CTO in Serbia for many years. This country has a strong IT talent pool and we have already managed to use this talent to support our sister companies in Europe, but not only by taking leading positions within the Group. Those people do very significant work for the company from here, especially in these times of uncertainty. Now, speaking from the perspective of the CEO, I am very proud to see our team pioneering new ways of work, such is agile methodology, for example. By being more agile, we are able to bring our products to the market faster, by building a product or service according to customer feedback from the very beginning. And by being pioneers, we, as a team, represent a role model for other markets.

In which ways does Telenor contribute to the development of entrepreneurship in Serbia?
I would say that Telenor contributes the most by enabling companies to run their business, inspiring and challenging them at the same time.
By offering connectivity, we are enabling the business community to concentrate on their core area of business. But we also dig deeper; we create offers and services that best suit their specific needs (Moja firma packages or Telenor safe service). The feedback we get from our business clients is great and we will continue to dig and create new prospects for them.
At the same time, we try to inspire and, by pointing out successful examples, raise their voice and say: it is possible to run a successful business in Serbia. In the long term, that will definitely influence the overall development of the economy and we are happy to contribute. Having that in mind, we launched a unique portal, mojafirma.rs, where the business community has all the necessary information on how to run a successful SME.
At the end, we challenge the business community and try to create possibilities for people with great ideas. We launched the Telenor Smart City Challenge Serbia 2016 – a competition for the development of mobile applications and smart city solutions.

How much has the Moja Fima (My Firm) portal succeeded in becoming a nursery for good entrepreneurial ideas?
A lot, especially considering the importance of SMEs – these companies account for 99.8% of all firms in Serbia. It is estimated that by 2020 the number of these companies will have expanded to 350,000, employing a million people. With that in mind, it was clear to us what job had to be done with this portal – to give SMEs strategic support by providing them with all the necessary info on how to run a successful business, whilst at the same time promoting successful examples and inspiring.
Since its launch in 2015, there have been around 2.5 million of unique views and almost 100,000 downloaded documents. Also, 700 people directed their questions to us and, by responding, we empowered their work.
Informational technologies represent a great opportunity for the development of entrepreneurship in Serbia and we at Telenor are happy to contribute in the future as well.