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Photo Gallery: The Trouble with WiFi in Germany

Foto: Hilmar Schmundt/ DER SPIEGEL

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.

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.

The American Model

Many companies see these investments primarily as a form of advertising, and in doing so they follow prominent role models. In the US, Google has outfitted Chelsea, the New York neighborhood where it has its local office, with free public hotspots. Mayor Michael Bloomberg publicly praised the company for helping New York take "another step closer" to becoming "the world's leading digital city." For Google, this was comparatively cheap as far as advertising goes -- setting up the network cost barely $100,000 (€77,000), and annual operating costs will be less than $50,000.

Hotel operators, meanwhile, can no longer afford not to offer free Internet access. According to a survey of 8,600 travelers around the world, conducted this February, three quarters of those surveyed consider wireless Internet access a basic amenity, one they rank higher than free breakfast or complementary parking.

Even Deutsche Bahn, Germany's national railway, now offers Wi-Fi in around 90 of its 255 ICE trains, with plans to eventually extend coverage to the entire fleet by the end of 2014. Access to the network, though, is only free in Deutsche Bahn's train station lounges. To use Wi-Fi on the trains, passengers have to pay a fee -- to Telekom. Germany's recently deregulated long-distance buses are more advanced in this field, with nearly all operators offering Wi-Fi onboard, perhaps as a consolation for longer traveling times.

Lufthansa, Germany's national air carrier, says it has retrofitted over 90 percent of its long-haul fleet with Internet access, although it's not shy about charging for the service: A one-day onboard flat rate costs €19.95. Most of the trailblazers when it comes to Wi-Fi in the skies have been airlines from the Gulf States, but in US airspace as well, this last Internet and cell phone-free bastion has fallen, with Delta offering travelers an annual flat rate for $469.95. Scandinavian airline Norwegian, meanwhile, provides a fast Wi-Fi connection on flights within Europe at no charge.

Berlin 's Hacker Pioneers

The visionaries behind this entire development meet on a Wednesday evening in mid-June at a club called C-Base along a stretch of Berlin's Spree River. There beneath the trees, computer screens glow blue as the Freifunk group holds its weekly meeting. "Public wireless networks are just as important as streets or power lines," says Daniel Paufler. "They're part of a functioning city."

These idealistic DIYers first sat down together 10 years ago; now volunteers operate more than 250 public hotspots in Berlin. To save on costs, they use a minimum of cables, instead broadcasting their Internet connection across the city using microwave radio relay antennas on church steeples and apartment blocks. Cables then send data from the rooftops into the various neighborhoods.

Where these open citizens' networks initially stood for an anti-capitalist utopian ideal, today the governments of hard-up cities welcome Freifunk groups for the infrastructure first aid they can provide. The media authority for Berlin and the surrounding federal state of Brandenburg supports the Freifunk project with €30,000 in funding.

These pioneers of full-coverage Wi-Fi access also consider Germany's "liability for disturbances" legislation the largest obstacle preventing comprehensive coverage. "It's basically as if we hold the road construction company responsible when a driver causes an accident," Paufler says.

'A Surreal Legal Situation'

The danger posed by the legislation is far from an abstract one, as Ilona A. had the misfortune to learn. In February 2010, the 65-year-old retiree received a warning notice stating that she had illegally downloaded a hooligan movie from the Internet and now owed a €651.80 fine. That came as a surprise, seeing as A. had an Internet connection, but no computer. She has appealed the fine at successive levels of the German court system, and the case is currently pending at Germany's highest court, in Karlsruhe. But since a decision has yet to be reached, she explains, she is still forced to pay the fine, in installments of €75 a month.

"It's a surreal legal situation," says Ansgar Oberholz. He's standing at the counter of his Berlin café, St. Oberholz, which is full of customers tapping away at their open laptops. Thanks in part to its fast Wi-Fi connection and convenient location on Torstrasse in Berlin's central Mitte district, St. Oberholz has become a meeting place for the city's digital boheme.

"Until 2011, we generally received about one warning a year," Oberholz says. "Then, suddenly, we got eight in three months." The accusation was always the same -- that customers had allegedly used the café's Wi-Fi connection to download or upload copyrighted material. To avoid these warnings from legal firms that specialize in precisely this area, Oberholz now routs his café's data traffic through a provider called Hotsplots, which offers the advantage that its customers can't be identified.

The Freifunk organization felt a need to take even more drastic measures and now sends its own local Berlin data traffic to Sweden over an encrypted connection. Last year, the organization distributed to cafés and bars hundreds of so-called "freedom fighter boxes" -- Wi-Fi routers with the detour to Sweden preprogrammed into their firmware.

That strategy is much the same as that used by dissidents avoiding the censorship of authoritarian governments.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein