We want to enter the mobile telecommunications market and offer our users 4P services, i.e., a combination of broadband internet access, television and fixed-line telephone services, on the one hand, mobile telephone and internet, on the other – Milija Zeković, SBB CEO
Company Serbia Broadband – SBB emerged in Kragujevac 20 years ago and is today a leader of innovation in Serbia’s telecommunications market. United Group – leading multi-play telecoms and media provider in South East Europe – emerged and developed out of SBB, and today SBB forms part of that group. Here we discuss SBB’s development path and future plans with its CEO, Milija Zeković.
What do you consider as being the decisive factors in the business policy that enabled SBB to today hold a leading position in multiple market segments in Southeast Europe?
This company was created 20 years ago, when it had only eight employees. SBB today has more than 1,800 employees in Serbia, while United Group, which emerged out of SBB, has over 15,000 employees.
An orientation focused on the user, the market and users’ needs contributed to this group expanding out of that little company that started life in Kragujevac. We had an ear for everything needed by our users, monitored all world telecommunications trends and succeeded in being the first in Serbia to bring innovations to this market. Apart from being customer- and employee-oriented, investments in employees have also led to most of the products we now provide being manufactured within the scope of SBB and United Group. That’s how the EON TV platform, which was created within United Group, has now become the best TV platform – not only in Serbia and the region, but I would say even further afield.
Looking at the entire portfolio of services you provide, what would you say users use the most?
According to the research that we conduct, ours are the most satisfied users of telecommunications services in Serbia. First and foremost, they’re satisfied with our EON platform and the possibility to watch television non-linearly, i.e., time-shift. We were the first to launch that option in Serbia and are far and away the best. Users are also satisfied with the free subscription video on demand (SVoD), which we were also the first to offer, and our fast and stable internet. We have received confirmation this year from internationally renowned company Ookla’s Speedtest®, the global leader in fixed broadband and mobile network testing applications that we have the fastest and top rated fixed network.
How has the focus of your investments shifted with time and what will be your most important future step to ensuring the further development of a company that is celebrating 20 years of doing business?
We initially invested the most in television, and then in broadband internet. We’ve invested over half a billion euros in our technology just in the last 10 years, and this year we’re completing a major project: GIGA Serbia, the digitalisation of the whole of Serbia, which means that all cities where we provide services will be digitalised, and that we’ll be able to provide every city with internet speeds of up to 1 Gbps. Our television service will also be digitalised, meaning users will have very good picture and signal quality. And we won’t stop there. We’re going for a speed of 10 Gbps, and that’s our plan for the following three years, which requires investments of around 250 million euros in the existing network. We also want to enter the mobile telecommunications market, to become an operator that has in its portfolio a complete fixed and mobile services, to provide quadruple play services and to be innovators in both the field of 5G and the field of mobile internet service provision.
Through the process of learning at our company, we create staff with abundant knowledge and experience, who have good conditions for advancement and a good quality of life, which motivates them to stay with us and in Serbia
While we’re on the topic of the 5G network, it’s generally believed that it will bring the greatest shift in the industrial sector and less so in the domain of individual users, for whom 6G will be more significant. What are your motives for entering this segment?
When it comes to mobile telecommunications, but also fixed services, there are some new cycles every four to five years. What we’re trying to do is to convince the state to organise a tender as soon as possible and thus resolve the cycle of investing in 5G, because if you fall behind in the 4G process, as we have, then it becomes a question of when the next generation of mobile telecommunications will come. And we also have experience in Bulgaria, Croatia and Slovenia, where we already provide commercial 5G services, and then we ask ourselves why we wouldn’t apply that knowledge in Serbia, where we have a strong company.
You operate in a region that’s highly exposed to outward migration. How hard are you hit by the challenges of finding and retaining expert personnel?
SBB has historically demonstrated that it’s a good place for young people. Already 38% of our managers are aged under 40, which means that we attract young people. Likewise, within the framework of United Group, in the scope of its R&D centre – United Cloud, employees know that if they work for United Cloud they can advance and bring something new to the market, which is interesting. During the last year we’ve signed a cooperation agreement with the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, the Faculty of Organisational Sciences and the Faculty of Economics, and we now have around 20 people on work experience placements at the company who are learning and are potentially ready to start working, when they complete their studies. However, nor are we isolated and immune to outward migration. What’s become noticeable in the last year or two is that now there isn’t only a lack of highly educated personnel, but also professional workers with secondary school level education, primarily in the telecommunications domain. We’ve also done something in this field, through cooperation with educational institutions and work experience placements at our company.
How prepared are the region’s users to adopt new technological solutions and what do your stats show about the extent to which users possess the required digital skills to be able to fully utilise the options you provide?
Technological innovations are in our DNA. We listen to the demands of our users and innovate constantly. The EON TV platform, then EON Connect, EON Kids. We have a sector that deals with innovation, which brings innovations, and our market accepts that in a way that’s similar to the Western European market. The younger population in particular is constantly seeking something new. Our advantage is that we succeed in bringing what’s new to the Serbian market. We devote plenty of time to educating users. Our shops are like showrooms, where the user can try each of our services, which is particularly important with the elderly population. Our customer relations are ultimately what set us apart.
We all became more mobile during the Covid-19 pandemic. What does that mean to you in terms of offering services to such clients on the move?
During Covid, when we all switched to working from home, we saw a huge increase in internet use, even exceeding 50%, in watching television and using all our services, such as watching TV content Catch-up TV, video on demand… We even had a more than 75% increase in the use of fixed-line telephones. Some capacities that we’d only intended to make available in 2023 and 2024 had to be released immediately. We were also among the first companies to introduce telework from home for our services where possible, and that was even before it was officially introduced.