Recently, the Serbian Parliament enacted amendments to the Act on Electronic Communications (Act). The Act was drafted through a collaborative effort of representatives from a broad range of organizations, including the Regulatory Agency for Electronic Communications and Postal Services (RATEL), the Regulatory Agency for Electronic Media (REM), the National Alliance for Local Economic Development (NALED), the Foreign Investors Council, the National Convention on the European Union, supplemented by expert opinions from the business sector.
The implementation of the revised Act incorporating legislative provisions from the European Code of Electronic Communications is anticipated to considerably contribute to establishing an equitable business environment. This includes strengthening consumer protection, augmenting the quality of services, safeguarding privacy and security, and reinforcing the integrity of public communications networks. The following discussion delves into the Act’s most significant amendments.
One amendment worth noting is the enhanced right of consumers to terminate contracts in the event of changes in contractual terms without any financial liability for termination. The right to unilateral termination due to altered terms, previously encapsulated in the Consumer Protection Act, has thus been reinforced within the telecommunications sector.
Historically, the concept of termination-related costs was susceptible to various interpretations, resulting in an inconsistent application in case law. The recent amendments have mitigated this by providing a clear definition. Consumers are now entitled to terminate contracts when changes involve modifications to any original condition instrumental in their decision-making process. However, the term “instrumental” could still be subject to interpretation, necessitating ongoing observation of how this will reflect in the operators’ general terms and conditions or whether the RATEL will issue clarifying guidelines. This significantly enhances consumer protection in the swiftly evolving electronic communications sector. While Serbia already possesses an EU-compliant Consumer Protection Act, ensuring stringent consumer safeguards, the amended Act deepens these protections within the telecommunications realm. It does so by unambiguously defining termination costs, thus providing consumers with a clearer understanding of their rights and fostering a balanced, fair relationship between operators and clients.
Another critical aspect centers around regulating the radio frequency spectrum – a resource of paramount importance in telecommunications. The Act includes transparent rules and conditions for the use of the radio frequency spectrum, facilitating access for independent users, optimizing resource allocation and efficiency, and paving the way for newcomers in the market. Uniform allocation of the radio frequency spectrum is pivotal for the effective deployment of 5G technology, with, for reference, the European Commission estimating an annual revenue of approximately EUR 146.5 billion from its implementation within the European Union. Moreover, the Act enhances the level of consumer protection with a solution resembling the Protection of Financial Services Users Act, wherein the National Bank of Serbia assumes a similar role in consumer protection within the financial sector. This ensures consistent protection across diverse sectors, benefiting market participants by standardizing offer and contract formats and explicitly outlining costs and rights, enabling consumers to compare offers more effectively. Additionally, the Act stipulates provisions for out-of-court dispute resolution. If an operator dismisses an objection lodged by an end consumer, an out-of-court settlement procedure is initiated by the RATEL, which must be concluded within a maximum timeframe of 180 days.
In alignment with environmentally friendly practices, the Act mandates electronic billing for electronic communications service operators, thereby reducing the environmental impact and costs associated with paper billing. Notwithstanding, upon request, end users can still opt for a detailed paper invoice itemizing the services and charges. Furthermore, the Act mandates the compulsory registration of prepaid end users of mobile telephony as a measure to prevent data misuse and enhance security. For individuals, registration entails processing data, including names, personal identification numbers, and subscriber numbers. For legal entities, the registration requires processing the entity’s name, registration number, and assigned subscriber number.
In conclusion, the recent amendments to the Act align the Serbian legal framework more closely with EU legislation, providing significant consumer benefits, introducing an innovative framework for utilizing the radio frequency spectrum, and encompassing other notable improvements. The role of the RATEL as the governing body is now more crucial than ever. Monitoring the agency’s response to its expanded mandate will be an area of keen interest.
By Bogdan Gecic, Partner, Branko Gabric, Counsel, and Vuk Lekovic, Senior Associate, Gecic Law