ZDF documentary reveals the sad state of digitisation in Germany
A recent documentary by German public broadcaster ZDF has exposed particular failures of the country’s digital literacy. Digital Fail - Deutschland in Datenstau looked at Germany’s slow fibre-optic expansion, e-government, the digital economy and how the country’s “lagging behind” could lead to further problems in the future.
German gamer forced offline due to poor connection
A struggle known to many living in Germany is the poor internet connection. Digital Fail opened with the story of one of Germany’s most popular gaming YouTubers, Simon Schildgen. Falling victim to low-quality internet service from one of Germany’s top providers, Schildgen was forced to pause his career.
When he bought a house in Herne, North Rhine-Westphalia, the gamer was told that there was a one-gigabyte internet connection in the area, but shortly after moving in the situation proved otherwise. An internet speed of 50 megabits was included in his internet contract, but Schildgen said that during streaming prime times between 7pm and 8pm, he realistically gets 1 to 2 megabits.
Schildgen explained to the program that the situation got so bad in 2022 that he was forced to stop streaming for five months. After looking for a long-term solution the gamer had to move to using “Multi-Instanzen-Failover-LTE", an internet connection which uses antennae from WWII, but not for nothing; the connection costs him 330 to 400 euros per month.
Streaming to millions is one thing, but even those trying to carry out simple tasks like a presentation for school or uploading photo files to the internet face connectivity problems. Standing at the top of his garden in Lohmar, near Cologne, pensioner Rainer Flachmeyer videocalled his mother from the only nearby place he knows he can get service. In the area surrounding Flachmeyer’s house, nobody can hope to get a reliable internet connection either: “When I had my building materials delivered the driver came with a card reader,” Flachmeyer told ZDF, “Down on the street [I said] “I’m sorry. We have to go up there [to the garden] so that I can pay.” It was a bit stupid but there was no other way."
Online BAföG applications are all printed out…
In another tale of internet trials and tribulations the ZDF crew looked into the process of BAföG applications, the government-funded student loan available for EU citizens in Germany.
While the 2021 move to digitise the application process for BAföG was much celebrated in Germany, an interview with a young student studying at the Technical University in Berlin revealed that the system leaves much to be desired. After submitting an application online Jana Büldtge waited five months to receive her student loan, being forced to borrow money from her parents in the meantime to cover her rent.
What ZDF revealed behind the scenes at the BAföG office explained everything - every single online BAföG application - is printed out at the office in Berlin and physically filed away.
“Unfortunately, our main task is to print out the applications,” administrative employee Luisa Kohlmann told the broadcaster. “It takes an average of four hours per day, but since it is dependent on the season, it can also be as many as six to eight hours.” According to the local government in Berlin the use of electronic files, rather than having to print out all applications, is currently in a pilot phase but is unlikely to be introduced before 2024.
Germany has no chance with AI, says Neumann
The documentary met with Linus Neumann, a member of the hacker group Chaos Computer Club and former advisor to the German government. Neumann explained that he thought it was a grave mistake to give private companies total control over internet services and only let the government step in in a crisis situation. “We are talking about an infrastructure that is necessary for life,” the expert said.
Instead, Neumann said that Germany needs to radically develop its digital processes at a national level, starting from the very beginning. “If you have a crap process and you digitise it then you just have a crap process but digitised, and that is what we are doing all the time,” Neumann told the programme. “Incentives are created that only lead to the fact that these infrastructures are shabby and expensive. [...] At the beginning, it would be very expensive [to digitise services on a national level] but ultimately it would be cheaper."
Neumann said that Germany’s path to digitisation is currently falling victim to its own “lighthouse projects”, as plans to digitise random areas which vary across federal states lead to a digitised system which is disjointed and dysfunctional.
According to Germany’s Online Access Law, 575 government services, such as Anmeldung or applying for a driving licence, should have been available online by the end of 2022, but in 2023, the figure is still only at 105. And Federal IT Commissioner for the German government, Markus Richter was inclined to agree with Neumann: “We aren’t where we want to be because many of the essential services that people and companies need are carried out at federal state and communal level."
So is there hope for the future? “We missed the boat with data, with intercommunication, with mobile phones. But with AI, and everything that it needs, we will shoot ahead! But it doesn’t work like that,” Neumann concluded.
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