Careful, systemically conceived and implemented digital transformation in Serbia has enabled the economy and citizens to be far more ready to confront the challenges they faced during the pandemic. Even in the tourism sector, which suffered the greatest consequences of the crisis, this sequence of events did not hinder the digital promotion of domestic potential
The economic sectors that come under the scope of the work of the Ministry of Trade, Tourism andTelecommunications experienced tectonic disruptions during COVID-19, from the strong rise of E-commerce and the mass transition to working from home, to great pressures felt by the tourism sector.
We spoke with Minister Tatjana Matić about the digital transformation process in Serbia, the introduction of the 5G network and a new reconsidering of Serbian tourism’s position on the global map.
How would you summarise a year of life under the pandemic, from the perspective of your ministry?
The strategic commitment to digitalisation that was made five years ago has enabled Serbia not only to gain numerous development potentials, but also to fortify itself for the challenges of the modern era in terms of current social and economic changes. Although nobody could have predicted the terrible global crisis and the blow of the pandemic, it could be said that we were ready for unexpected disruptions thanks to our systemic approach to digitalisation in the areas of the development of regulations, stimulating the development of telecommunications, information security, raising the level of digital skills, developing E-commerce and enabling market liberalisation.
All activities directed towards the development of the digital society and economy, including the adoption of laws, strategic documents and the implementation of numerous programmes and projects, have contributed to it being possible, under the circumstances of a pandemic, to do business and conduct activities related to education, communication and the overall functioning of society. The tourism sector alone suffered seriously, due to the impossibility of travel, but digital promotion was also carried out in that area, in parallel with the adoption and implementation of support measures and the planning of new strategic goals towards the conquering of market positions in the post-pandemic period.
In short, the results of our work from previous years significantly eased the tremendous stress that we’ve all been subjected to during this crisis.
When you look back, what are the strategic moves made in recent years that have enabled Serbia, according to the assessments of many, to succeed in ensuring good quality telecommunications during the mass transition of companies to working from home?
Intensive work on the development of broadband infrastructure has been carried out in Serbia over the last few years, thanks to the adopted strategic framework. Electronic communications operators are developing their own networks in line with the latest trends, which includes setting up optical communication infrastructure and increasing the coverage and capacity of mobile communication networks.
This enables uninterrupted work from home, as well as the use of broadband services even under the conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic. The timely release of parts of the radio frequency spectrum was provided, which enabled the intensive development of mobile networks. Today we have secured 4G mobile network coverage for more than 95% of the population.
Likewise, considering the existence of the digital divide in Serbia, as well as in other European countries, the Ministry of Trade, Tourism and Telecommunications has launched a project to develop broadband access in rural areas.
The results of our work on digital transformation from previous years significantly eased the tremendous stress that we’ve all been subjected to during this crisis
What further steps will you take in bringing high-speed internet connections to parts of Serbia that don’t yet have such services?
The goal of the Government of Serbia is for there to be no household in the country without the possibility of fixed access to high-speed internet by 2025. Within the framework of that initiative, a capital project was launched for the construction of broadband communication infrastructure in rural areas, and a loan agreement between the Republic of Serbia and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, amounting to 18 million euros, is envisaged for the implementation of the first phase. With this we will secure ultra-fast broadband access in 500 settlements, or for about 80,000 households in rural areas, for which there was no commercial interest among operators to investment in the network.
The Ministry conducted analysis to review the current situation when it comes to broadband internet access, which showed that Serbia has “white zones”, territories that don’t have adequate access to broadband networks and where operators have no plans to build them in the next three years. It has also been recognised that around 2,800 settlements with over 320,000 households have a problem with broadband internet access and these are areas that are candidates for state incentives.
The implementation of the first phase of the project will actually enable inclusion in the digital society for nearly a third of those who’ve had problems to date with fixed internet access. The second phase, which is aimed at connecting through the network up to 900 schools/public institutions and up to 135,000 households, is planned as a separate project for 2021/2022. This will also create a new platform for the development of digital services in these areas, i.e. new channels for the development of IT services – the IT industry, E-commerce and E-tourism, together with the economic strengthening of underdeveloped areas.
Many people consider that COVID-19 has led to the significant accelerating of the digital transformation process in Serbia. Who are its champions and what challenges were faced by those who didn’t cope as well?
There are a large number of examples of successfully transitioning to working online in Serbia, as well as digital transformations. These are, for example, the education system, remote shopping, the banking system and doing business with citizens. I would also highlight the services that are available through the eGovernment portal, which ease the everyday lives of citizens and render business operations more efficient.
This kind of development of events required many to develop their digital skills and improve their digital literacy overnight. How do you intend to encourage the further development of these skills?
With the aim of raising digital literacy generally, the Strategy for the Development of Digital Skills for the period from 2020 to 2024 was adopted, which includes improving the digital knowledge and skills of all citizens, including members of vulnerable social groups, but also digital professionals, in order to enable the monitoring of the development of information and communication technologies in all areas.
We have developed particular programmes that are intended to empower and increase the inclusion of girls and women in digital technologies, training projects in the area of digital skills for women in rural areas, as well as the “Smart and Safe” platform for encouraging the use of new technologies in education, trade and business.
For the youngest users, alongside the annual school campaign ‘IT caravan for the creative and safe application of technologies in learning’, four years ago we established the National Contact Centre for the Safety of Children on the Internet, which functions as a service for citizens to report the endangering of children, but also as a centre for education and information.
Digital literacy is practically a new form of literacy that’s essential in all spheres of life, while digital skills are increasingly confirmed as a prerequisite to work and operate successfully, and in accordance with that we will certainly continue implementing and further developing existing strategic programmes which, together with the development of networks, should contribute to the complete elimination of the digital divide and the inclusion of all citizens in the contemporary digital society.
We are witnessing a major debate in Serbia about the introduction of the 5G network. How much does the domestic industry primarily need 5G solutions and, given the level of our development, where could it be applied?
The main advantages brought by 5G mobile networks encompass a significant increase in throughput with reduced delays, which is essential for efficient automation and other processes that are important for the development of industry. There are numerous examples of potential applications of 5G networks, and they cover areas such as agronomy, the automotive industry, telemedicine and applications for mining, transport and storage. Even at the current level of industry development, the development of the 5G network, as well as modern technologies, will undoubtedly provide a strong impetus to Serbia’s overall development.
When does the Ministry intend to conduct the auction? What will the practical sequence of steps be like?
The public tender for the issuance of individual permits for the use of radio frequencies in the bands intended for the development of new mobile systems, including 5G, is expected to be conducted by the end of 2021 at the earliest. The practical sequence of steps is stipulated by the Law on Electronic Communications and encompasses the bringing of decisions regarding the fulfilment of conditions for the issuance of individual licenses under the public tender procedure conducted by the Regulatory Agency for Electronic Communications and Postal Services, the adoption of an act prescribing the minimum conditions for the issuance of individual licenses under the public tender procedure conducted by the Ministry of Trade, Tourism and Telecommunications, after which the Agency decides about the initiating of a public bidding procedure.
The public tender for the issuance of individual permits for the use of radio frequencies in the bands intended for the development of new mobile systems, including 5G, is expected to be conducted by the end of 2021 at the earliest
How much of a position was the government in to help the tourism sector and are you planning some additional measures to help the most vulnerable subgroups in this segment?
The Government of Serbia last year adopted several measures to help tourism due to the pandemic, with about nine billion dinars allocated for that. A Decree was adopted at the beginning of this year that envisages a minimum wage for tourist guides and escorts, then two Decrees for subsidies intended for the hospitality and tourism industry, and for the hotel industry, in a total amount of three billion and 612 million dinars, and a call was made for supporting the work of hospitality and tourist businesses, for which 350 euros per individual bed and 150 euros per accommodation unit were secured. The first 100,000 vouchers in support of domestic tourism were also provided and distributed.
We hope that, thanks to the immunisation process, we will soon see the start of the period of normalisation, but we will certainly continue to introduce support measures as necessary. It is, however, crucial for us to encourage investments in, and the promotion of, tourism in Serbia, given that unutilised potentials still exist and that we are awaited by the redefining and retaking of market positions around the entire world, which can be a great opportunity for Serbian tourism.
What does the new digital agenda at the European level mean for the Western Balkans; what are your further strategic priorities?
Cooperation at the regional level is of great importance to Serbia and the Ministry of Trade, Tourism and Telecommunications. With the aim of achieving the best possible cooperation in the Western Balkan region, the Ministry participated actively in the development of the Action Plan for the development of the common regional market for the period from 2021 to 2024, and it also participates actively in its implementation.
That Action Plan recognises as a priority the development of a regional digital territory, within which the priority areas are the aforementioned digital infrastructure and connectivity, digital skills and competences, the digital economy in the era of new ICT technologies, and services of trust and security. These areas represent strategic fields for the development of electronic communications and information society, as well as the priorities of the Ministry.
Within the scope of the aforementioned priority areas, an Agreement was also signed on lowering the prices of mobile roaming services. With the implementation of this agreement, as of 1st July 2021, the prices of calls, sending SMS messages and transferring data in roaming within the Western Balkan region will correspond to the prices that citizens pay within their home network. This Agreement is also significant because it represents an important step in preparations for the region’s integration into the EU digital single market, as well as an important step in the process of reducing roaming costs between the EU and the Western Balkans.
It is crucial for us to encourage investments in, and the promotion of, tourism in Serbia, given that we are awaited by the redefining and retaking of market positions around the entire world
Even at the current level of industry development, the development of the 5G network, as well as modern technologies, will undoubtedly provide a strong impetus to Serbia’s overall development
The goal of the Government of Serbia is for there to be no household in the country without the possibility of fixed access to high-speed internet by 2025