Radio Silence Germany's Wireless Internet Problem

Free wireless networks are in short supply in Germany. Liable for the activities of their users, service providers are operating in a risky legal gray area. After national elections this fall, that could all change.

Hilmar Schmundt/ DER SPIEGEL

By and

It was a mild summer evening in mid-June when Teju Cole accepted the International Literature Prize at the House of World Cultures in Berlin's government district. Born in 1975, Cole is originally from Nigeria but now lives in New York, and the host of the award ceremony asked the novelist where he feels at home. "Home is wherever there's good Wi-Fi," Cole replied. "And if there is no good Wi-Fi there, then it's not home."

The statement sums up an entire approach to life. For Cole's generation, life has two new basic requirements: fully charged batteries and fast Internet connections everywhere: at home, at school, in cafés, train stations and airports.

Batteries, plugs and chargers aren't a problem, unless you're unfortunate enough to forget one of the accursed things at home. But here in Germany, the need for a fast Internet connection on the go is more problematic.

Many German smartphone and tablet users have cell phone plans that allow them to surf online, but the data volume is generally limited. And those who are just visiting, like Teju Cole, are often subjected to horrendously high roaming charges. In any case, accessing data-intensive content such as movies, music or even the digital edition of SPIEGEL works better over a wireless local area network, generally known as WLAN or Wi-Fi.

Germany Lagging Behind

Compared to many other countries, Germany is little more than a patchwork when it comes to accessible public hotspots, and even its largest cities remain largely uncharted wireless waters. The topic has reached even Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, which invited Berlin judge and IT expert Ulf Buermeyer to present an expert opinion on "the potential of wireless networks" to one of its subcommittees.

"Most Western countries, but many developing countries as well, are much further along on this than Germany," Buermeyer stated. "As you walk through cities there, you can access public Wi-Fi networks from nearly every corner." He himself has experienced this in cities from Washington and Paris to Luxor and Cairo, the judge added. "But in Germany, we essentially have radio silence on our sidewalks."

Other countries do indeed come up with creative ways to provide comprehensive Wi-Fi coverage. In one historic park in Israel, for example, donkeys now wear routers around their necks to ensure visitors don't have to go without Internet access.

Now, though, Germany is making an effort to catch up. Part of this push is commercially motivated, since Internet access via hotspots is becoming a competitive advantage, as well as an attractive business model for many providers. The pioneers in the movement, though, were noncommercial initiatives. Germany's first "Freifunk" ("free wireless") clubs formed over a decade ago with the goal of creating open Internet access for all. These networks draw on the concept of a sharing economy, with router owners each making a portion of their unused bandwidth available to others.

Inhibited by Laws

Legal concerns are the main reason Germany lags behind so many other countries, not just pioneers such as Estonia or Israel. German law holds the operator of a public hotspot liable for everything its users do online. This, Buermeyer told the Bundestag subcommittee, creates a situation in Germany in which "it's only possible to offer a Wi-Fi network for the public if you have very steady nerves or very solid financial backing."

For years, organizations and individuals have been calling for Germany to abolish or at least curtail this so-called "liability of duty" (Störerhaftung), but the government refuses on the grounds that such a move is "neither appropriate nor necessary." This corresponds, among other things, to the wishes of the music industry, which seeks to prevent illegal downloads.

This year, though, open Wi-Fi networks have become an election campaign issue. "Germany has fallen behind internationally on public networks," says Gesche Joost, a design professor at the University of the Arts, in Berlin, and Internet policy advisor to Peer Steinbrück, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) chancellor candidate in the country's upcoming elections. If the SPD wins this fall, the party promises to repeal the "liability of duty" law in its current form within 100 days. Joost's concept, though, is not quite what Internet activists have been calling for, since it would require users of public Wi-Fi networks to sign in with a personal password.

The Social Democrat is not alone in advocating the establishment of public Wi-Fi networks. The Left Party has introduced a bill on the topic to the Bundestag. The Pirate Party and Green Party likewise favor curtailing the "liability for disturbances" legislation described in Paragraph 8 of Germany's "Telemedia Act."

Konstantin von Notz, domestic and Internet policy spokesperson for the Green Party, admits his motives here are not entirely altruistic. To this day, he explains, there is no Wi-Fi access in the Bundestag. As an example, he notes, "This morning, I wasn't able to send my draft speech for hours."

Wi-Fi Despite the Risks

Despite the uncertain legal situation, some companies are already stepping in to fill the Wi-Fi vacuum in the hope of winning over customers early in the game. Deutsche Telekom, which already dominates the country's market with its existing 12,000 access points, has announced the most far-reaching initiative. The German telecommunications giant's new offer, in collaboration with Spanish firm Fon, is called "WLAN to go." Launched this June, the program plans to create 2.5 million new hotspots throughout Germany by 2016.

The idea behind Fon, founded in 2005, is the same one behind Freifunk networks: sharing bandwidth. The difference here is that Argentine entrepreneur Martin Varsavsky turned the concept into a business model. Users of the system, who are known as "Foneras" and now number over 8 million internationally, use their routers to set up two parallel Wi-Fi networks -- one for themselves and a separate one for guest users. Members can then access the Internet through other Foneras' routers wherever they find them, while non-members can purchase access passes to do so. In Germany, the Spanish entrepreneurs behind the scheme share the proceeds with their new partner, Telekom.

Telekom's collaboration with Fon surprised some in the industry, since Varsavsky was initially viewed as a challenger to the major corporations. These companies, though, find themselves increasingly overburdened by their cell phone users' hunger for data and are hoping that Wi-Fi can help reduce the load on their networks.

The Telekom/Fon project also has competition in the form of numerous regional initiatives. In Berlin, cable network provider Kabel Deutschland recently launched 80 new hotspots, which allow both locals and tourists half an hour of free surfing. After those 30 minutes are up, only Kabel Deutschland customers may continue to use the network. And in Munich, a cooperation between the municipal utilities company and Telekom provider M-Net just established a hotspot on Marienplatz, a major square in the city. Many more around Munich will follow suit this year.

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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Manish Gupte, PhD 07/05/2013
1. Legal protection has to be there
Some people in US and India have written all sorts of nonsense on social media. When the court was moved, they said "freedom of speech". No protection against defamation! So...
greanknight 07/06/2013
2. Why not just ask the NSA to provide Wi-FI hotspots?
Why not just ask the NSA to provide Wi-FI hotspots?
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