Germany's internet infrastructure ranks poorly compared with that of other industrialized countries. Leaders from the four political parties negotiating a new coalition government in Berlin want to change that.
In an interview published on Friday, Special Affairs Minister Peter Altmaier put a fast mobile network and internet connection on a par with life's essentials in Germany.
"A good and complete mobile network and fast internet are part of the state's public services — a basic right," Altmaier, who has served as head of the Chancellery and Angela Merkel's right-hand man since 2013, told the German daily Bild. "They are as important as the provision of water, electricity and food."
His comment came as Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Bavaria's closely affiliated Christian Social Union (CSU), the laissez-faire Free Democrats (FDP) and the Greens have been holding preliminary negotiations to form a coalition government.
The "Jamaica" coalition — so named because of the parties' respective colors: black, yellow and green — has never been tried at the federal level.
On Monday, talks in Berlin reportedly ended with all parties agreeing that the government should close "dead spots" in internet access for rural areas and ensure that the entire country has comprehensive access to "gigabyte" internet connection speeds by 2025. A gigabyte is equal to 1,000 megabytes.
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A 'gigabyte society'
Building the necessary infrastructure to ensure every German's "basic right" to fast internet will require large investments in the country's aging network.
The challenge has not been lost on party leaders. At the end of October, CSU chief Horst Seehofer said the government would need to put tens of billions of euros toward creating a "gigabyte society." Those words reiterated a commitment by his colleague, Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt, who in June announced an package that will reportedly see the government invest €20 billion ($23 billion) into rollring out gigabyte internet over eight years.
The financing will be necessary because gigabyte connection speeds are more than 20 times faster than what German households currently enjoy. Akamai, one of the world's largest content delivery network providers, put Germany's average connection speed at 15.3 megabytes per second (Mbps) in its "State of the Internet" report for the first quarter of 2017.
Though that's better than the global average of 7.2 Mbps, Germany comes in 25th in the overall ranking — far behind No. 1 South Korea, with 28.6 Mbps. Compared to other European countries, Germany's average speed is only good enough for the 15th spot, behind Romania and Bulgaria.
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A common goal
Although the four Jamaica parties disagree on many policy areas — most notably immigration — expanding and improving Germany's internet infrastructure may be one topic on which they could quickly come to an agreement.
In the campaign for September's parliamentary elections, all four parties committed themselves to improving internet infrastructure. The young and charismatic FDP leader, Christian Lindner, even made the issue of "digitization" a central pillar of his party's electoral campaign. Commuters and shoppers regularly walked past black-and-white electoral posters of Lindner looking at his smartphone with captions such as "Digital First, Doubts Second."
Though the parties agree on the goal, questions remain about how the country should finance network upgrades. The FDP, Greens and some CDU/CSU members have suggested selling off state shares in Deutsche Telekom, the country's largest telecommunications company, and then using the proceeds to finance network upgrades. Other members of the CDU/CSU — including Dobrindt — are reportedly less enthralled with the idea because of Telekom's relatively low share price.
The FDP and Greens also disagree with the CDU/CSU about the need to establish a ministry to regulate the digital sphere. Members of the the former have said such a ministry would increase government efficiency by centralizing responsibility for internet-related issues, which are currently spread over five ministries. But the CDU and CSU have resisted the idea, with members suggesting instead that a deputy minister for digital affairs position should be created in the Chancellery.
Yet these differences of opinion are slight compared the parties' disagreements on other questions. If a Jamaica coalition does form in Berlin in the next few months, the average internet user might just realize Altmaier's "basic right."