Call center agent Jennifer Schulze says her poor internet connection at home became a health hazard when the pandemic hit.
To limit personal contact among employees and curb the risk of spreading the virus, Schulze's employer gave her a laptop and asked her to work from home. But back in her village of Mose, she couldn't get the software to work.
Her neighbors had similar problems. Their internet traffic was running through 30-year-old copper phone wires — making connections too slow for remote work.
At the height of Germany's first wave of infections, Schulze had to go back into the office.
"At times, it was really frightening," she remembers. "When I got home, I didn't know if maybe I'd been infected with COVID-19 at work and would pass it on to my family."
Schulze never contracted the virus. But her story illustrates the digital divide that runs through Germany.
While people in urban areas have fast internet access, some rural communities remain effectively cut off from the web.
That is the case for Schulze in Mose, a hamlet of about 300 people nestled among cornfields and wind turbines, about two hours west of Berlin.
"Two kilometers down the road people have no problem going online, here there is no reception at all," says Mayor Marco Röhrmann.
Lack of political commitment, market failure, bureaucracy
In June, Germany's Federal Office for Building and Regional Planning issued a report warning that slow internet connections are hampering development in rural regions — and that this could lead to Germany's rural areas losing a quarter of their population by 2040.
How did Europe's richest economy fall behind on rolling out better internet connections?
The story goes back to the early 1980s, when West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt developed a 30-year strategy to replace copper phone lines with fiber-optic cables. But his successor, Helmut Kohl, killed off the plan and invested in TV cables instead.
West Germany never rolled out fiber-optic cables on a large scale — and neither did Germany as a whole after reunification in 1990, when the country connected its underdeveloped, formerly communist eastern part.
Instead, places like Mose got cheaper, yet less powerful options like copper wires.
"It would have taken years [to roll out fiber-optic connections] — and people weren't willing to wait," says Torsten Gerpott, a professor of telecommunications management at the Mercator School of Management in Duisburg.
Another far-reaching decision was made in 1995 when Germany privatized its telecommunications sector.
"During that liberalization process, the fatal mistake was made of ... leaving everything to the free market," says Jutta Zülow, the CEO of data and electricity networks company Zülow AG.
In the years that followed, companies focused on rolling out internet connections in inner cities and commercial areas, but mostly ignored rural places like Mose, where customers are few and far apart.
"Private companies need to make a profit," said Anke Domscheit-Berg, the internet policy spokesperson for the socialist Left party in the German parliament. That is, she added, also the reason why firms tended to upgrade existing old cables rather than install new fiber-optic connections — with the financial support of the German government.
"This strategy of funding old technology to let it live a little bit longer was actively hindering the fiber optics rollout," says Domscheit-Berg.
One mayor's fight for broadband
Frustrated with the lack of internet connectivity in his village, Mose Mayor Marco Röhrmann decided to go into local politics in 2013.
But nothing he tried in the following years "really changed the situation," says the 36-year-old, who has lived in the village his entire life.
Negotiations with telecom firms led nowhere. At some point, a regional company promised to build faster connections — but never did. Then, the villagers thought about building a cable network themselves, but they couldn't secure enough funding. They repeatedly experienced how red tape set back their efforts.
"All you hear is: 'You can't do this, you can't do that'… and 'it's complicated,'" says Röhrmann.
Then, the coronavirus pandemic hit, and "things got very real."
Children couldn't attend classes online. Adults like call center agent Schulze couldn't work from home. And Röhrmann is convinced Mose was "no isolated case."
Across the country, communities in rural areas reported similar problems — finally opening the eyes of political decision-makers to the country's digital deficits.
Bits starting to move
"As strange as it sounds, the pandemic gave Germany a kick in the butt," says opposition politician Domscheit-Berg.
The country has since enshrined the "right to the internet" in a new law. And — although Germany still lags far behind countries like South Korea or Sweden when it comes to installing powerful fiber-optic cables — faster connections are on the rise, including in rural areas.
In Mose, too, things are slowly moving. This summer, fiber-optic cables were expanded to the village's edge. Residents were told that this would soon make their internet connections fast enough to do video calls, work remotely or play games online.
"We'll be able to say we've finally arrived in the 21st century," call center agent Schulze says with a smile.
And the villagers were even promised that they could soon get powerful fiber-optic connections all the way to their homes, says Röhrmann — but he is still skeptical.
"Our experience with the local telecom companies has taught us what they say is not always what they do," he says.
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