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EXPLAINED: How Germany is trying to tackle its slow internet problem

German internet is known for being blighted by dead zones and slow download speeds, but the government is hoping a new law will help bring the country into the 21st century. Here's how.

Allansbach am Bodensee
The village of Allansbach am Bodensee in Baden-Württemberg. People in more rural areas of Germany often have to content with slow internet or a patchy connection. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Felix Kästle

What’s going on?

It’s no secret that internet in Germany isn’t quite up to scratch. In fact, it is often one of the first things foreigners notice after moving to the country.

Most people expect Europe’s largest economy to also be a digital powerhouse, but time and time again the country ends up near the bottom of the ranking list in terms of its internet download speeds and latency. 

In 2017, Germany came 25th in a ranking of average internet speeds and had slipped further down the list to 38th place by 2021. Though speeds have been gradually improving over the past few years, the latest survey put Germany behind at least 18 other European countries in terms of its internet speed, including Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Portugal, Hungary, France and Romania. 

To try and tackle the problem, the traffic light coalition of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) have drafted a bill that would give everyone in the country the right to fast broadband. 

It was agreed on by the cabinet on Wednesday and will be put to parliament over the coming weeks or months. 

READ ALSO: ‘We’re running late on this’: Deutsche Bahn promises better Wifi on German trains by 2026

OK. How fast is fast? 

Not insanely fast, unfortunately.

According to the draft, fixed-network internet connections everywhere in Germany must in future provide at least 10 megabits per second (Mbit/s) for downloads and 1.7 megabits per second for uploads to their customers. 

This seems particularly low in light of the fact that Germany was recorded as having average download speeds of around 41 Mbit/s back in 2020. Though this looked bad in comparison to somewhere like the Netherlands, where 70 Mbit/s was the average speed, it does make the 10 Mbit/s target seem a bit under-ambitious.

It’s worth remembering though that this an absolute minimum standard – so most houses should expect something far above the 10 Mbit/s. And this kind of speed is generally good enough for relatively fast HD streaming and excellent internet browsing. 

In addition to the minimum download and upload speeds, the government says the latency (reaction time) should also be no more than 150 milliseconds.

Why are they aiming so low? 

According to Transport Minister Volker Wissing (FDP), the minimum requirements are intended to ensure “the digital participation” of all those “who have so far been cut off from coverage”.

In other words, the government is more concerned with bringing basic broadband to people in more remote areas than making Wifi speeds insanely fast for everyone else. 

Wissing also mentioned that the minimum standards would be redefined year by year. This will take into account the development of internet use in Germany, which changes over the years due to network expansion and new tariffs, he said.

READ ALSO: More than half of Germans regularly experience bad mobile coverage

What are people saying?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the opposition conservatives aren’t particularly impressed with the draft. 

Describing the targets as “unambitious”, digital policy spokesman Reinhard Brandl (CDU) said people’s modern internet usage habits were already being ignored.

“We have considerable doubts as to whether a 10-megabit download rate and a 1.7-megabit upload rate per connection are sufficient as a basic service for a family with children,” Brandl said. 

Rheinhard Brandl (CDU)

Reinhard Brandl (CDU) speaks in the Bundestag. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christophe Gateau

When will the changes come into force?

Originally, the ordinance was due to come into effect on June 1st – but the bill still needs to get the approval from the Bundestag and Bundesrat before it can become law. 

For that reason, the Transport Ministry is now expecting to miss the June deadline and could introduce the rules later in summer or autumn instead. 

What will it mean when the law changes?

For the first time, it will mean that people in Germany have a legal right to certain broadband speeds. This gives them grounds for complaining to network providers if they aren’t getting the minimum speed. 

It could also give the Federal Network Agency a push to speed up the roll-out of infrastructure that can improve broadband speeds. In some cases, it could arrange for new cables to be laid. 

READ ALSO: German mobile networks improve coverage in signal ‘dead zones’

Member comments

  1. The telecom company has to make it cheap, which is not the case. And you don’t get an automatic upgrade. You stay in your old contract…

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TECH

Germany deploys waste collectors to map mobile blackspots

On a street in Wusterhausen, around an hour's drive north of Berlin, a man paces intently, holding his mobile phone in front of him.

Germany deploys waste collectors to map mobile blackspots

“I’m looking for network, because here this area is not good,” says Arek Karasinski, in town on a business trip from Poland.

Issues with phone signal are a source of constant frustration for the residents of Wusterhausen, which sits in one of Germany’s many blackspots, out of reach of any mobile network.

“We’re here in Germany, an industrial nation, and we have all of these dead zones,” says Matthias Noa, head of waste management firm AWU.

Noa was so exasperated that when the local government asked if they could use his garbage trucks to do something about it, he quickly agreed.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How Germany is trying to tackle its slow internet problem

Since the summer, the trucks have been fitted with a device that measures the signal quality on their routes across the district of Ostprignitz-Ruppin.

Because their work takes them everywhere across the area, they are the perfect vehicles for the job.

“We go out on the ground, into every nook,” says Werner Nuese, the vice-president of the local council, who was not satisfied with the efforts made by public bodies or private groups to plot the signal problems.

Jonny Basner, a driver participating in the programme, knows the trouble well. “It would be great if I had enough signal to reach the depot from the villages (on the route),” he says.

Trackers have been handed out to hikers and cyclists to fill in the gaps left by the rubbish collectors.

On a map, Nuese points out the spots marked in red where the signal is at its worst.

“Even if this is a rural area in the northeast of Germany, we shouldn’t be forgotten. That’s our demand,” he says.

‘On the terrace’

A short walk shows the issues people are facing.

“Outside on the terrace I can get signal, but in the house there is nothing, no one can reach me on the phone,” says Dieter Mueller in the village of Bantikow.

About 10 kilometres (six miles) away in Wusterhausen itself, Marko Neuendorf says he has cancelled his phone contract “because there simply is no signal here”.

The region would become more attractive to investors and tourists if the mobile network were better, local officials believe.

“Every cottage industry has gone digital, every single electrician uses a tablet to order spare parts. It’s not just big companies that are more digital,” says Noa.

Council official Nuese says medical spas in the area have been getting poor reviews “because the signal is very bad”.

“It’s a measurable economic disadvantage,” he says. The obsolescence of a lot of Germany’s infrastructure and administration
shot to the top of the political agenda with the exit of Chancellor Angela Merkel from office a year ago.

READ ALSO: Fact check: Is Germany’s internet really that bad?

According to official data, standard LTE coverage, equivalent to 4G, is at 100 percent. But in a survey by the price comparison site Verivox, published earlier this year, most people said they regularly experienced a lack of signal when using their phones.

In 2018, then economy minister Peter Altmaier said he was “very annoyed to have to call back three, four times because it cut off” when making calls from his car on official business.

By producing more detailed signal maps, the council hopes to encourage a response from mobile network operators and to lobby the government for more support.

By Lara Bommers

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