Berlin politicians wanting to see a modern society systematically implement the right of free online-access should look at Estonia. In its capital, Tallinn, cafés, parks, buses and trains offer free wireless internet. Signs on the street point to government-sponsored wi-fi spots. Estonians can vote online. It takes only 15 minutes to register a company on the government’s website. And the country has not forgotten its hinterland. By building WiMAX radio-towers it has given online connectivity to 98 per cent of the population, an astonishing rate in a nation with an average of just 29 people per sq km.
Germany on the other hand is thought of as a hi-tech-country but five million of its citizens have no access to high-speed internet because they live in rural areas. According to an EU-wide study, this celebrated bastion of engineers ranks only ninth in terms of broadband connectivity. “Germany is not playing the role of a locomotive,” Viviane Reding, EU commissioner for information society and media, told the German business newspaper, Handelsblatt.
Now, finally, the government will close this digital divide. In spring it will auction off frequencies that have been freed by moving television-signals from analogue to digital. By using this digital dividend, internet providers are supposed to give the entire country fast DSL by the end of 2010 and even connect two thirds of all households to superfast VDSL by 2014. “It’s a huge effort,” says SPD (Social Democratic Party) member of parliament Martin Dörmann. He is sceptical that the process will actually be completed on time but thinks it is “good to set ambitious goals”.
And the new ubiquitous internet poses technical problems. According to the Association of German Cable Operators, there’s a danger of interference with the reception of set-top boxes and televisions. Also approximately 630,000 wireless microphones for concerts or sporting events that use the same frequency range will also have to be converted for an estimated €3bn. “The digital dividend is a quick fix but not the long-term solution,” says Gudrun Kopp, an FDP (Free Democratic Party) member of parliament.
Experts agree that the need to get the provinces logged on is undisputed. Online marketplaces allow products from even the most remote areas to be sold worldwide. Also, in an economy that is no longer dependent on raw materials sources or manpower pools, and where many businesses are digital, the playing field is potentially levelled for all regions. The German backwoods are suddenly becoming appealing.
Some villages are already using satellite or paying for broadband-cables themselves to connect to the internet. This is transforming farms into offices and creating green work environments for stressed-out city slickers. In Berlin the conversational topic du jour, even for younger people, is the appeal of owning a wi-fi-equipped cottage in Uckermark or some other nearby bucolic spot – not just as a weekend retreat but as a part-time workplace. But for locals this is more than just a lifestyle-option. Tabea Rößner, a Green party MP, says: “Many young families move away from villages – especially in East Germany – because there simply is no infrastructure.” With broadband internet those people could pursue qualified jobs in the countryside and the villages won’t look so empty any more.