Telcos are aware of this too, as they will be the biggest investors in infrastructure in the coming period, along with the government, which cannot adopt spatial plans or ensure construction without local authorities.
In three Croatian cities and the town of Sveta Nedjelja, which in many ways is the trendsetter, local leaders are ready to strongly support digitalization. Representatives of Zagreb, Split, Osijek, and Sveta Nedelja discussed whether this is all talk or if the budgets actually include the application of new solutions on the panel “Digital Prospects of Croatian Cities” at the “Technological Progress – the Basis for Croatia’s Economic Competitiveness” conference, organized by the Croatian Employers’ Association with the support of Hanza Media.
Osijek is the first 5G city in Croatia, with a widely recognized IT startup scene, so a lot is expected from Osijek in the context of investing in the development of the next-generation network. The deputy mayor of Osijek Dragan Vulin, who has a professional background in this field and teaches at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Computer Science and Information Technology in Osijek, admitted that local authorities cannot claim the success of the IT scene in Croatia, but announced the completion of the “IT Park” project. The city will finance the construction of a 4,300-square-meter building, offering co-working spaces, a conference room, work and leisure area, and a restaurant for all companies in the park. In this year’s budget, the Osijek has earmarked HRK 70 million for IT projects, and Vulin announced that the investments in digitalization could increase. The yearly budget for the city of Osijek is set at around HRK 840 million.
“We are extremely pleased that the number of employees in the ICT industry is on the rise in the Osijek-Baranja County. Thus, last year there were 717 employees in county-based companies alone, and now there are as many as 1,200, which is a remarkable growth. These are young people with above-average incomes, and, for the first time, Osijek recorded a higher number of immigrants than emigrants last year,” said Vulin, convinced that the ICT industry is partially responsible for the positive demographic figures.
Split, on the other hand, has made a huge step towards digitalization. The three large projects implemented in Split are worth a total of HRK 250 million, and the funds have been earmarked already. The total budget for 2022 is planned to amount to HRK 1.7 billion, a large portion being the expected revenue from European Funds. The deputy mayor of Split Antonio Kuzmanić highlighted that they have started a large project to change all public lighting to LED lighting, so 250 kilometers of fiber-optic cables have been installed in the city, and he explained that the 250 million figure, as much as Split is to invest in digitalization, does not include the numerous projects of the city’s companies, so the investment will be significantly higher than the aforementioned amount.
“5G technology can bring momentum to economic development, but also raise the quality of public utilities, particularly in urban transportation, environmental protection, and waste management. None of the telecom providers will have problems with the installation of base stations in Split, we offer you to install them on the lampposts,” Kuzmanić said.
Split’s new administration is focused on the complete digitalization of services in the city, so mayor Ivica Puljak introduced a compulsory digital signature. Kuzmanić says that they banned personal signatures, and reduced copying and printing, thus drastically reducing paper consumption, and their ultimate goal is to enable citizens to quickly and easily have access to the entire city finances and to obtain the eight necessary licenses without paperwork.
Sveta Nedjelja is a town on the outskirts of Zagreb that made the most of its geographical position and proximity to the capital thanks to the administration of the new/old mayor Dario Zurovec, who revealed that when he started his first term in 2017, there wasn’t even a computer in his office.
“Now we are the most digitalized town in Croatia, but it might have been easier for us because we started with a blank slate. We are the only ones to fully open public procurement, through the application you can control city costs by items; we’ve also introduced cryptocurrency as a payment method for utilities, and were, of course, the first to test the 5G network,” Zurovec stated.
This mayor-engineer who worked in the telecommunications industry, installed software in his city to measure non-ionizing radiation, which showed citizens that the local radio emits more radiation than telecom base stations. He pointed out that they invest a lot in digitalization – around HRK 25 million a year – and their proactive approach also attracted the car company Rimac Automobili, which is in the process of building a campus in Sveta Nedjelja.
Unfortunately, the city of Zagreb won’t have the opportunity to boast investments in digitalization this year, as the HRK 15 billion ICT budget has been cut by 20 percent. Dražen Lučanin, the capital’s representative on the panel, said that the Zagreb City Council is working on reducing paperwork and the digitalization of processes within it and that they are in favor of a circular economy.
“We can’t say that nothing worked before us, so, for instance, the smart city strategy was quite seriously put together but there was a lack of will to implement it. The new city project will be an open budget so citizens can control the costs of the city government. We see high-speed internet as a counterpart to drinking water and our goal is to support the turn of the next-generation network,” Lučanin concluded.
Although these four cities are mostly positive examples, the panelists warned that 90 percent of Croatia is rural and that many local governments look down on the development of the 5G network. Martina Dragičević, a member of the HUP-ICT association, reminded us that the community wardens in Dubrovnik prohibited the installation of cells, i.e. 5G network infrastructure, and one local unit recently imposed a tax on the installation of base stations. She stressed that Croatia must prepare for the withdrawal of EU funds for ICT projects because they contain billions of euros for digitalization.
Commenting on the opposition to the construction of 5G network infrastructure by a part of the local self-government, Mislav Hebel, the regulatory representative, confirmed that HAKOM has the authority to penalize the local self-government units that oppose infrastructure construction by establishing spatial plans, but – he added – this is not HAKOM’s objective. All stakeholders in the construction of the 5G network, Hebel said, are expected to see a common interest in building infrastructure, and penalties, he says, are there as a last resort when all other options have been exhausted.