Tatjana Matić, Serbian Minister Of Tourism, Trade And Telecommunications

We Share The Same Vision Of Digital Networking With Europe

The introduction of the 5G network will undoubtedly provide a strong impetus to Serbia’s overall development. Serbia has today already secured 4G mobile network coverage for more than 95% of its population, which has also enabled uninterrupted work from home, as well as the use of broadband services, under the conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic

Serbia is yet to await the introduction of 5G. And once it is initiated, it will bring significant flow rate increases with reduced delays, which is essential to efficient automation and other processes that are important to the development of industry. “There are numerous examples of potential applications for 5G networks, and they encompass areas like agronomy, the auto industry, telemedicine, application in mining, application in transport and storage. The introduction of the 5G network will undoubtedly provide a strong impetus to Serbia’s overall development,” says Serbian Tourism, Trade and Telecommunications Minister Tatjana Matić.

Intensive work has been undertaken on the development of broadband infrastructure in Serbia over the last few years, in accordance with the adopted strategic framework. Telecommunications operators are developing their networks in line with the latest trends, which includes the installing of fibre optic communications infrastructure and increasing the coverage and capacity of mobile networks. 4G mobile network coverage has today already been provided for more than 95% of Serbia’s population. This has also enabled uninterrupted work from home, as well as the use of broadband services, even under the conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A significant number of innovative companies operate in Serbia, both developed ones and small start-ups. 5G technology creates the opportunity to develop innovative new products and services, and to generally automate many processes, which is a chance for each of these companies,” says our interlocutor.

Although we’ve markedly improved quality of life thanks to esolutions, particularly during the pandemic, technologies – especially 5G – have become the subject of the kinds of conspiracy theories and fears that aren’t unknown to our society. How do you combat misinformation and to what extent can such phenomena threaten the ultimate application of 5G in our country?

It is necessary for the public to be familiarised with verified and scientifically grounded information related to the application of new technologies. The leading organisations that analyse research on the effects of electromagnetic radiation and define recommendations in connection with permissible levels of radiation – the most famous of which are the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) and the World Health Organization – conducted research that relates to the impact of electromagnetic radiation. When it comes to the situation in our country, Serbia has much more stringent criteria on the prescribed values of permitted radiation levels than those defined in official international recommendations. In this regard, within the scope of the nationwide EMF RATEL project, sensors have been installed at points of interest and continuously measure the electromagnetic field levels of electronic communication networks (88 sensors in 39 cities) and the results of that measurement are available publicly. All values measured to date have been lower than the prescribed values permitted.

The Ministry of Trade, Tourism and Telecommunications’ capital projects for the development of infrastructure will further accelerate citizens’ inclusion online. This relates primarily to the domain of education and the less developed parts of Serbia

Where does Serbia stand today, in relation to comparable countries, when it comes to the development of e-commerce?

In the first half of 2021, according to data from the National Bank of Serbia, almost 11 million transactions were made in dinars (on the websites of Serbian traders), which is 91 per cent more than in the first half of last year. At the same time, those transactions had a total value exceeding 25 billion dinars, which is up 99 per cent compared to the first six months of 2020. E-commerce is achieving high and relatively stable annual growth rates globally, and those rates have outpaced growth in traditional commerce by far. The fact that crises like the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic have only served to further accelerate the growth of e-commerce shows that this is an extremely stable business model that’s been affirmed by the market and deserves the credit for generating more than a third of total GDP globally.

Growth opportunities for e-commerce in Serbia have been utilised thanks to new laws in the areas of e-business and e-commerce, but also in the field of information security. This enabled the swift redirecting of many activities to the online environment and, despite the circumstances brought by the pandemic, the digital transformation of all forms of social functioning continued.

The Ministry of Trade, Tourism and Telecommunications’ capital projects for the development of infrastructure will further accelerate citizens’ inclusion online. One of them is the project to build local computer networks, which was last year implemented in about 940 schools and will be finalised in approximately another 950 schools this year, as well as the project to build a broadband network in rural areas for 600 settlements that are home to around 90,000 households, thereby raising the digital connectivity of our society significantly, and with it the need for e-commerce and new digital services.

You’ve announced amendments to the Law on Trade that will introduce, among other things, digital delivery notes. How prepared are our companies to accept these kinds of changes?

“Digital delivery notes” will not be an obligation, but rather an opportunity. As has been the case to date, businesses will still be able to use delivery documents that accompany goods in transport in paper form, with their own signature. So, there will be no additional costs for traders, hauliers and manufacturers. Considering the fact that a large number of companies already use delivery notes in the form of an electronic document, we want to facilitate their operations and ease the obligation to use a qualified electronic signature. With this change we can speed up the work of people on the ground, reduces costs and avoids unnecessary contacts that can pose a risk to human health, particularly during the time of a pandemic.

Your Ministry is currently working to prepare a trade strategy for Serbia until 2025. What kinds of changes do you anticipate digital transformation will bring to this sector?

The development of information technologies and digital transformation have already had a great influence on the development of trade around the world, and even in Serbia. The specific market circumstances caused by the pandemic, in particular, have accelerated the development and implementation of digital solutions within the scope of retail operations and directed shopping towards the internet.

The digitalisation of trade is moving in three directions. The first direction implies the evolution of physical channels, through the incorporating of the latest technologies. The essence will be in the development of new marketing channels, which will maximise the value for customers, while the focus will be on digitalising the consumer experience within retail facilities, then on the digitalising of payments, as well as digitalising communication with customers both inside and outside the shop.

The second direction in the digitalisation of trade implies the integrating of digital and physical sales channels. Traditional retailers are introducing digital channels to their business model, thereby becoming multi-channel retailers. By intensifying integration between these channels with the help of technologies like artificial intelligence, ERP software and massive data analytics, retailers will transition to a form of sales that includes all channels. The same applies to exclusively e-traders, who also switch to the multi-channel sales model by entering into business with physical sales facilities. The third direction implies imitating the characteristics of physical sales in a digital environment. E-merchants can thereby overcome barriers to buying and any aversion to online shopping. The key is in reducing risks when making purchases.

This relates to the new format of so-called virtual stores, where customers have an opportunity to behave as though they’re in a real environment, choosing products from shelves while simultaneously buying them in real time.

Ahead of us are further joint efforts towards integrating the region into the pan-European digital zone, which will lead to us becoming a digitally driven economy based on EU standards and practices

When it comes to the development of policies in the field of digital transformation, how much does your ministry rely on the academic community and Serbia’s growing start-up community?

The competent Ministry, as well as other institutions of the Government, are in close communication with the private and academic sectors. This cooperation has resulted in an array of advanced regulations and incentive measures for the development of innovative ideas, which were developed in cooperation with the Serbian Chamber of Commerce & Industry, E-Commerce Serbia and NALED, within the scope of the Serbia Creates platform. The Office for IT and eGovernment is working on the development of new services and innovative solutions in these domains and significant progress can be expected in this aspect.

Podgorica recently hosted the 4th Western Balkan Digital Summit. How far have we advanced since the first summit, both as a region and at the national level?

This summit, dedicated to furthering cooperation in the field of digital transformation around the region and the digital perspective in the context of European integration, is of exceptional importance to achieving shared prosperity among the economies of the region and its connection to the European Union’s single market. In the period of crisis caused by the pandemic, it is even more important to have a shared vision of digital networking and – as the main force for economic growth – that should be extended to the struggle against current challenges. Significant steps have already been taken in the framework of the Digital Agenda for the Western Balkans with the abolishing of roaming tariffs on the territory of the Western Balkans, which additionally confirms the Republic of Serbia’s commitment to regional networking with the European Union market. The applying of this European principle has already yielded visible results in the form of eased communications and business operations in the region, and I’m convinced that we’re on the right track and that – despite the challenges and difficulties prompted by the pandemic – we’ve made exceptional progress in the area of digitalisation.

Government services increasingly use improvements to E-solutions in their own work. How do these tools help when it comes to combating the grey economy?

A large number of examples of successfully transitioning to online work exist In Serbia, as well as examples of digital transformation. These include, for example, the education system, remote personal shopping, the banking system and operations with citizens. We would also single out the services available via the eUprava [eGovernment] portal, which ease citizens’ everyday lives and improve the efficiency of the operations of enterprises. Special mention should be made of the struggle to combat the grey economy in the field of e-commerce, where the bolstering of the legal framework to prevent illicit trade certainly proved crucial. Likewise, a special contribution to this is also provided by public campaigns that don’t only encourage electronic transactions, but also raise awareness of the importance of legal transactions to economic growth as a whole. Our Ministry has conducted multiple media campaigns that inform citizens about the benefits of e-commerce. One of the most significant activities implemented with the aim of combating the grey economy was the campaign “Take your receipt and win”, while the campaign “Click for sure, buy verified” is currently underway and aims to raise awareness among citizens about secure and legal internet-based trade.

Photo: Jelena Vučetić

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