A quarter century ago, when I started my career as a lawyer in the media and telecoms field, I learned the importance of understanding technology, its advancement, and in particular the importance of making it work in the best interests of your client.
I was, to some extent, involved in a project where we were trying to circumvent regulatory obstacles in delivering news programming of a small radio station operating in Belgrade to audiences in other parts of Serbia. After the authorities rejected their applications for a satellite uplink and even microwave link licenses, technology was a thing that allowed our client to live-stream the news over the internet, pick up that stream abroad, uplink it to a satellite from a neighboring country, and allow several local radio stations throughout Serbia to collect the signal with a simple satellite receiver dish and retransmit it. While disappointed with the low sound quality (due to the slow internet speeds back at the end of the twentieth century) we were, at the same time, extremely proud of enabling millions of people in the country to hear the news the authorities were trying to hide from them. This was one of the things that were not only instrumental in the democratic changes in Serbia that occurred a couple of years later but, at the same time, the proof of the endless opportunities technology provides to, inter alia, fight oppressive regimes.
Some twenty-plus years later, traditional media in Serbia and the regulators do not appear eager to be as forward-thinking and technologically advanced. They just keep on doing the same old, same old, every day. This summer, Serbia had its first public tenders for terrestrial broadcasting licenses after 16 years. Unsurprisingly, and even though there were new entrants interested, licenses were issued to incumbent broadcasters.
On the other hand, in times of multi-channel distribution platforms controlled by telecom operators, it appears that who distributes the content is more important than who produces it. When one looks at the statistics, what is going on becomes more obvious. Serbia is still far away from the cord-cutting phenomenon experienced in some other countries. The number of households subscribed to some sort of multi-channel distribution service, since the second quarter of 2018, has risen from 1.7 million to 2.12 million. What also differs is the number of multi-channel distribution service providers and their market shares. In other words, the market has consolidated and, instead of six major players controlling some 92% of the market in the second quarter of 2018, we now have just two of them, Telekom Srbija and Serbia Broadband, controlling almost 96% of the market.
In the same four years period, Telekom Srbija’s market share has increased from just 25% to a staggering 50.8%. This was acquired mostly through a series of acquisitions of smaller competitors, licensing of prime content, and investment in local production. At the moment, it appears that the next battle among the competing telecom operators should be fought on the 5G roll-out front. While the 5G spectrum auction was postponed several times due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other reasons, it appears that both Telekom Srbija and Serbia Broadband, as well as mobile networks operators A1 and Yettel (formerly Telenor), are ready to roll.
The enthusiasm, once abundant in the Serbian media sector, now appears to be somewhere else – in the start-up ecosystem. As noted by Startup Scanner 2022, research made by the Digital Serbia Initiative – a non-profit, non-governmental organization with the strategic goal of developing a strong, globally-competitive digital economy in Serbia – several public sector programs have been created in order to support innovation activities, while we are witnessing an increased influx of investments and support from the private and non-governmental sectors, as well.
Start-ups are often considered to have a non-linear impact on technological and economic development. What may support this point of view in Serbia is National Bank of Serbia data indicating that, in 2021, Serbian exports of ICT products and services exceeded USD 1.7 billion, surpassing agriculture, traditionally the main export sector of the Serbian economy. And should anyone wonder why this is important for lawyers, it would be sufficient to read that among the major findings of the research into room for improvement of the ecosystem – from the point of view of start-up founders and employees – is the lack of information on intellectual property rights protection.
By Slobodan Kremenjak, Partner, Zivkovic Samardzic