Why is the internet in Germany still so slow?
On this day in 1969, the internet was born - but even after half a century of technological progress, Germany doesn’t have much to show for it. Instead of speed-of-light downloads and razor-sharp images, we are faced with stuttering streaming and 4G black holes.
So in honour of this special anniversary, we ask the question that’s on the lips of every expat to ever arrive in the federal republic: just why is the internet in Germany so slow?
The scale of the internet problem in Germany
It’s not a new question. If you live in Germany, no doubt you’ve screamed it yourself while trying to download a larger-than-usual file or use mobile data on your phone anywhere outside of Berlin. As comparison tests regularly make clear, digital life in Germany leaves much to be desired.
In their annual comparison of average internet speeds worldwide in 2019, British data service Cable ranked Germany 27th overall, one place behind Slovenia. In 2021, a report found that one in three users in Germany reported experiencing problems with their internet almost every day. As if that weren’t bad enough, Germany also has one of the worst 4G networks in Europe, in terms of both average speed and coverage, despite commanding some of the highest prices.
It’s not as if these complaints are falling on deaf ears, either. The need to update Germany’s connections has been under discussion for decades now, with debates about fibre optics, data highways and broadband connections going round and round in circles. So, five decades after the emergence of the first internet connection and almost 10 years after former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s promise to bring 50 megabits per second to every household in the country, why are we still in the “implementation phase”?
Good intentions, bad follow-through
The answer to that question can probably be summed up thus: “good intentions, bad follow-through”. Germany has long had ambitious plans for its internet network, but has just been unwilling, or unable, or too stingy, to follow them through.
As far back as 1981, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s coalition government had recognised the future potential of fibre-optic technology, unveiling a 30-year plan to expand it across the entire country: “As soon as the technical prerequisites are met, the Deutsche Bundespost will quickly set up an integrated broadband fibre-optic network,” his cabinet proudly announced.
The problem was, this decision was made right at the end of Schmidt’s reign, and within a few months a new chancellor with different priorities had taken over. Instead of investing in fibre optics, Helmut Kohl of the CDU focused his energy on updating and extending existing cable networks. This reluctance to chuck out the old and embrace (and invest in) the new has continued to characterise Germany’s interaction with internet technologies in the ensuing 40 years.
Deutsche Telekom’s love affair with DSL
Kohl did make some halfhearted attempts to lay fibre optic cables after the reunification of Germany, but before that project could really get off the ground, DSL began to gain enormous popularity among network providers, particularly Deutsche Telekom (the former state provider that had recently been privatised).
DSL was especially favoured in the early 2000s because it allowed the transmission of more data than ever before through pre-existing copper telephone wires - meaning no new lines had to be laid. Without having to exert more effort than was necessary, Deutsche Telekom and its competitors were able to offer their customers internet speeds that, at that time, were perfectly acceptable.
Internet technology in Germany: DSL vs fibre optic
For the sake of comparison: at the same time South Korea had its sights set on the future. By the beginning of the 21st century, it was already laying fibre optic cables, confident in the belief that the billion-dollar investment was a small price to pay for an internet connection that would stand the test of time. Needless to say, they were probably right.
While the thin copper wires favoured in Germany can offer speeds of around 250 megabits per second - more than enough for the transmission of a Netflix film at high resolution - in reality the same connection is generally shared between several households, meaning that if someone next door suddenly decides they want to call grandma on FaceTime, the connection will start to get a bit doddery. The average reality is around 50 megabits per second. Fibre optic, by contrast, easily transmits 1.000 megabits per second.
Fix and improve, don’t update!
Back to the story: Fast forward to 2010, and the European Union was laying down “Europe 2020”, a 10-year strategy for the advancement of the European economy. One of its flagship initiatives was the roll-out of high-speed internet connections: specifically, the member countries pledged to achieve 30 megabits per second for everyone by 2013, and 100 megabits per second for 50 percent of households by 2020.
As you might imagine, Germany failed to meet these goals on time. Instead of installing fibre-optic cables, Deutsche Telekom resolved to increase average internet speeds by fixing and improving its existing copper cables with vectoring technology. In this, the federal government as a major shareholder also has to take a share of the blame - they continued to fund vectoring right up until it was blocked by the European Commission over concerns about its competitiveness. By 2017, only 77 percent of households in Germany had 50 megabits per second, far short of the promised 100.
Stingy or smart?
From a money-saving perspective, the strategy makes sense. To this day Telekom insists that, by focusing on improving the old copper wiring, they have managed to improve download speeds for 80 percent of the German population. If they had invested in fibre optic coverage, they argue, relatively fewer customers would have benefitted - only around 10 to 15 percent.
But with a view to preserving Germany’s global standing, it seems remarkably short-sighted. Indeed, a 2019 ranking of Global Competitiveness pointed to Germany’s weak performance in information and communications technologies as the reason for its slump from third to seventh place in the world.
Looking forward: Germany fibre-optic by 2025
It seems that the federal government has finally got the message. In 2016, things began to turn around and the country threw itself behind the slogan “internet for everyone”. The federal government began to push the internet service providers, with equal measures of force and financial gain. Most recently, they have pledged to subsidise the roll-out of fibre optic connections, to the tune of 12 billion euros, available to individual companies in investment pots of up to 1 billion euros.
Most of Germany’s network infrastructure is now based on fibre optics, but the last major hurdle is connecting individual houses to distributor boxes, which are all controlled fully by Telekom. This is an expensive and lengthy process, especially in rural areas, which given its own way the company would probably not have undertaken. The government, however, is full of optimism. It is promising fibre optic connections for every region in Germany by 2025. Let’s see if they follow through this time.