United Group’s Serbian operator SBB has submitted an official request to Serbia’s Regulatory Agency for Electronic Communications and Postal Services (RATEL) to launch a public bidding process for 5G ranges.

The request, which was also forwarded to Serbia’s Ministry of Trade, Tourism and Telecommunications, was accompanied by an SBB study carried out with international experts that indicated awarding 5G spectrum would provide significant benefits to consumers by stimulating competition and innovation.

“SBB believes that the conditions in the country have matured sufficiently to start the auction. The time is right for Serbia to follow its EU neighbours and ensure its 5G future. We must take full advantage of all the opportunities that the development of a digital society means for citizens. The rapid introduction of 5G services is a prerequisite for this,” SBB CEO Milija Zeković said.

He added that SBB is fully committed to the principles of free competition and open markets, and that this goes hand-in-hand with the company’s desire to expand its business to mobile, using all the opportunities prescribed by law.

The Serbian government had previously said that an auction would be held by March 2021. However, the government now says bidding will be postponed until the end of the year as an economic consequence of the pandemic.

SBB believes quickly initiating a public bidding process for 5G ranges would prove that government bodies and regulators are committed to accelerating Serbia’s EU integration and to “becoming a leader in advanced technologies and digitalization” by 2025, as Prime Minister Ana Brnabic stated in October of last year.

Benefits for Serbian consumers

SBB also submitted a study to RATEL carried out in cooperation with international experts that argues a multi-band 5G award and subsequent spectrum releases would inject new competition into the local market and make it more dynamic.

“With enough spectrum and the right incentives for both existing and new players to invest in the market, the dividends for Serbian consumers, industry and the wider economy would be enormous,’ the report said.

The study showed that while Serbia has significant potential, it lags behind in the offer of innovative services, and that the mobile services being provided to Serbian consumers are more expensive and of inferior quality relative to comparable EU states.

Serbian citizens pay more than users in Austria, Slovenia and Croatia – and for inferior quality – even when services are delivered by providers belonging to the same company and active in those countries as well as in Serbia.

The report said this was because the sector is insufficiently competitive with the existing operators having settled into a “cosy status quo”, insulated from meaningful new entry at both the wholesale and retail levels.

It said operators are also starved of mobile spectrum, the natural resource that provides the capacity to support growing mobile traffic, meaning they have little incentive to accelerate investment in better networks and innovative service offerings that may drive mobile traffic.

Securing Serbia’s 5G future

The report identifies four actions that RATEL, in partnership with the Ministry of Trade, Tourism and Telecommunications, can take over the next 12 months to secure Serbia’s 5G future. They are:
1. Establishing a simple, transparent roadmap for release of spectrum over the next 5 years.
2. Scheduling a multiband 5G auction that is open to all players to be held before end-2021.
3. Defining investor-friendly licence terms and regulations that support both the existing operators and potential new virtual or network-based entrants.
4. Setting reasonable reserve prices to ensure all spectrum is allocated and the award is accessible to everyone with a sustainable business case.

SBB said the award of 5G spectrum in Serbia has the potential to transform the converging communications industry in the country. The additional spectrum would provide the capacity for mobile operators to offer high-speed 5G services to all Serbians, and the award process itself – if suitably designed – could bring new competition to an under-performing sector.

“Working together, RATEL and the Ministry of Trade, Tourism and Telecommunications will be the key players in facilitating this transformation. This begins with RATEL initiating a transparent and inclusive process regarding the award of mobile spectrum, including both new spectrum for 5G use and future reallocation of expiring licences,” the report said.

It concluded: “As a leading player in the Serbian communications market and an interested party in the forthcoming 5G spectrum award in Serbia, SBB look forward to engaging in a future, industry-wide consultation on the allocation process.”