CEO of Telekom Srbija Group, a provider of fixed-line, mobile, television and internet communication services to over 11 million subscribers.
The first day of July 2021 saw the end of roaming costs across Western Balkan countries. Citizens in the region can now enjoy traveling without having to either switch off their phones or worry about the costs at the end of the month. Borderless communication is a major step forward in cross-regional cooperation and a significant symbol of progress given our region’s recent history. As CEO of a regional telecoms business with operations in most markets covered, I applaud and welcome this opportunity. It’s good for customers, and it’s good for business as a whole.
The EU set the precedent, having introduced its own roaming framework in 2017. While our friends and colleagues in Croatia and Slovenia were able to benefit from this, it created a barrier for the rest of the Western Balkans where high roaming costs remained an unfortunate reality. It was one of the biggest remaining obstacles to communicating freely across borders in a region that needs to communicate more, not less. Society demands it as we have become increasingly digital-led by the next generation, which expects to be online all the time. And what is good for consumers is also good for companies across the region looking to build their businesses and find new markets.
The benefits it can bring are illustrated by what we’ve seen in the EU. In a survey conducted by Eurobarometer a year after roaming was introduced, 82% of people who traveled to another EU country felt they had benefitted from the new rules. As noted in a joint statement by the vice-president for the digital single market and commissioner for digital economy and society: “Roam like at home is working and is becoming a habit: customers are appreciating it, consumption is up and the demand for mobile services while traveling in the EU is very high. It benefits consumers and operators alike.”
If this is an example of policymakers and regulators coming together to improve the lives of their citizens by delivering something consumers need and want more cheaply, then there is no reason why this should not apply to our own markets here in the Balkans. I’m confident that what we saw elsewhere can be replicated here, but it is dependent upon all mobile operators complying with the new rules and effective enforcement by national regulators.
This milestone in the Western Balkans comes after three years of careful preparation and negotiations. Expectations from the authorities were high, but the expectation of operators and consumers was even higher. At the second World Bank Digital Summit held in Belgrade in 2019, representatives of the economies of the Western Balkans signed an agreement on lowering the prices of roaming services in public mobile communication networks in the Western Balkans region. In this way, the signatories agreed to bring the maximum retail prices of roaming in the Western Balkans region to the price level according to the “home” rule, i.e., according to the rules valid in the European Union, by July 1, 2021, at the latest.
In all phases of the initiative for the abolition of roaming in the Western Balkans, my company and others have implemented the decisions and guidelines issued by the competent authorities. And all telecoms companies have had a tangible role in helping deliver cross-border communication at a more cost-effective price. Since the signing of the above-mentioned agreement, telecom operators have started with the phased abolition of roaming fees, which, until July 1, amounted to between 83% and 96% less than before the agreement.
Despite the loss of perceived revenue, roaming can actually be a recipe for future success as traditional telecom and mobile operators increasingly become multi-media providers. As we see continued changes in consumer behavior, so will business models need to continue to adapt to change. As elsewhere in the world, voice will increasingly be replaced by data as the main source of revenue. As data becomes more affordable, telecom companies can increasingly diversify their commercial offer from fixed telephony and mobile to broadband and multi-media content delivery to more people and more places as they invest in new infrastructure and connectivity.
The journey doesn’t stop here. Telecoms’ next milestone could be eliminating roaming costs between the Western Balkans and the EU. Nothing has been said yet, but it’s a natural evolution of a region that is increasingly looking to become a part of the European family. The other beneficiaries are, of course, our diaspora who remain a key target for future growth. Telecoms across Western Balkan countries can be the frontrunners in offering new services and products to others, particularly in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. It’s the next step for a region whose telecoms sector continues to grow and mature. The ambition doesn’t stop here as telecoms continue to deliver what customers want at a price they can afford.
Source: Forbes by Vladimir Lucic, Photo: Photo: jeshoots.com/Unsplash