Judging by the amount of posts in the various Facebook groups and the comments’ section on this very blog, newcomers never cease to be baffled about how poor access to reliable internet is in this country. Whether it’s at home or on mobile, it’s hard for some to move to the first European economic power and experience internet like it’s 2009.
This happened to me too naturally. It’s more expensive, slower than back home and don’t get me started on how it takes to even open a line. This made me curious: how did this happen? I mean surely, reliable and fast internet is key to economic success. How has Germany let this develop?
Come with me on a journey of poor technological choices, lobbying and weak political will.
Looking at the numbers: how bad it really is
Germany is 25th worldwide in average internet speed (2017), was 22nd in 2015 – just 15,3 Mbp/s. Half as fast as South Korea and below 13 other EU countries, as well as Switzerland. For the average highest internet speed, we’re only at 45th, behind 17 EU countries and Switzerland! We’re even further behind in fiber optics – only 4 countries rank lower than us. The mobile 4G network is also one of the worst in Europe, both in average speed and availability we’re at the bottom of the rankings, while we pay some of the highest prices in Europe for data.
What is the current technology behind this situation?
There are several different types of broadband connection (Breitbandanschluss) – copper, co-axial cable, fiber optics, and various hybrids of these main options.
- Copper is the slowest, reaching about 100Mbits/s download and 40Mbits/s upload at best.
- Cable internet can reach 1000 Mbit/s download and 50 Mbit/s upload in hybrid format.
- But that’s nothing in comparison with pure fiber optics, which can easily reach 2.5 GIGABITS per second download and upload speed!
With GPON technology we could someday see 52.5 Gbps, some 2300 times the current average internet speed in Germany. In experiments with multi-core fiber optics, researchers managed 255 TERRABYTES per second But in Germany, most network connections use copper (24.7 million), some use cable (7 million), while only about 2% (700.000) use fiber optics! Why is that?
Only 2% of network connections in Germany is through fiber optics. 2%!
Looking at history: how did it get this bad?
Already in the 1980’s, Helmut Schmidt’s government created a 30-year plan to expand the fiber optics network across the entire nation, recognizing the potential of this technology for the future. But during Helmut Kohl’s administration, these plans were put on ice and investments were made in the existing cable network. By the end of the 2000’s, Germans were already way behind other nations like South Korea and had no practical alternatives to DSL internet.
Then came the Europe 2020 strategy with three goals – broadband connection and 30Mbit/s speeds for everyone by 2013, and 50% of households with 100+ Mbit/s internet contracts by 2020. Each member state was supposed to create plans for making these goals happen. But Germany has failed to meet the first two on time, while the third hasn’t even discussed at a political level. Instead of investing in fiber optics, the government aimed for an average speed by combining the Telekom’s copper cabling with vectoring technology.
Actually, most of the network infrastructure is now based on fiber optics, except for the last part connecting the distributer boxes to homes. Telekom has full control over these distributer boxes due to the vectoring technology and was not motivated to innovate or improve things. Upgrading to fiber optics up to the last mile is a lengthy and expensive process, especially in the countryside.
But the current German government hasn’t discouraged the vectoring/copper technology, even providing additional funding until it was blocked by the EU Commission in an effort to increase competition. Meanwhile, the government kept making more promises it couldn’t keep and only in 2016 did it finally make real steps towards promoting “internet for everyone”. In 2017, 77% of households were only getting 50Mbit/s internet speed, instead of the promised 100!
It seems like the current situation arose from missing investments, failed government action, and a push from the Telekom to keep things in their favor.
It seems like the current situation arose from missing investments, failed government action, and a push from the Telekom to keep things in their favor. Other countries made efforts much sooner and better to connect households and cell towers to a fiber optics infrastructure, recognizing the importance of fast internet everywhere.
The impact on mobile data
This has also affected mobile connectivity, since some cell towers haven’t been hooked up to high speed internet. This impacts on the mobile price plans, the amount of data available per plan and also the maximum possible speed reached on a phone.
A study from 2018 from the federal network agency established that only 1.6 percent of German smartphone users can reach the promised internet speeds on their devices.
How does the future look like?
It’s easy to see that data is playing a much larger part in our lives with each passing year and connection speed will continue to be important. That’s why fiber optics are a safe investment for the future. Someone currently living in the countryside, with only a basic internet connection, will need much longer to surf the internet, waiting hours for large files to download. This holds them back!
Startups are formed in areas where the internet is fast, and companies won’t invest outside of the cities without the necessary digital infrastructure. We as individuals are also increasingly dependent on a fast connection. Studies are showing that our use of Google is causing us to forget details, knowing we can just quickly look everything up – externalizing our memories to the internet. Those with a slow connection won’t have the same access to information and lose valuable time with their processes. Time is short, and even seconds of delay can add up quickly.
Disclaimer: this post is largely inspired from the excellent video made by German Youtuber Simplicissmus. I recommmend the full video for more details on the situation. This post is just a short intro, many sources are there if you want to investigate further.
You can also watch this Jamie Oliver status quo update by the excellent German moderator Jan Böhmerman.