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Eastern Germany's rural area and low population density has limited Internet accessImage: picture-alliance/ ZB

Offline in the East

September 30, 2010

In a DW interview, a Berlin network economist says eastern Germany's poor telecom infrastructure has slowed Internet access. The region's shrinking population has also made it unattractive to Internet Service Providers.


Data released earlier this summer by Initiative D21, a Berlin-based organization that looks at Internet access in Germany, found that eastern Germany is still behind in terms of Internet access. Internet first came to West Germany in the 1980s. Initiative D21 reported that the state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, in north-eastern Germany, only has an Internet penetration rate of 62.7 percent. Even more urban states in former East Germany, like Brandenburg and Saxony, still have relatively low Internet connectivity rates, of 67.8 and 65.8 percent, respectively. By comparison, Bremen, in northwestern Germany, is the nationwide leader, with an Internet penetration rate of over 80 percent. The nationwide average is about 75 percent.

Deutsche Welle spoke with Georg Erber, a research associate in network economics and regulation at the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin, about the digital divide in Germany before and after reunification.

Deutsche Welle: What was Internet access like in East Germany in the late 1980's and early 1990's?

George Erber: Well, in the early beginnings there was an ambitious undertaking that the German government wanted to establish the most modern infrastructure in East Germany by setting up fiber optic networks under the guidance of the Deutsche Telekom - or Deutsche Post, at this time. In the end, this was an investment of about four billion deutschmarks, or a little bit more than two billion euros. It turned out that it was not usable with the Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) design, which required twisted pair copper telephone lines that most East German households did not have. Many of the problems in East Germany relate to the failure to build up appropriate network infrastructure, which was also not usable for the next generation of networks.

Today, is there a digital divide in Germany? Is the Internet penetration less in eastern Germany than in western Germany?

The East German telecommunication network, when unification took place, was completely run down - it was 30 to 40 years old. You really had to build it from scratch. There was an idea to implement the "best practices" from the West into the East, but that didn't exactly happen. One example was that there was the idea not to provide a universal service provision - which we have for telephone - for internet access. There was a belief that with market liberalization we would have [Internet Service Providers] purely driven by market forces. [But in the end, there were not] sufficient incentives for providers and network operators to build up a network that would service all customers in Germany.

George Erber
Erber has studied competition and regulation in network economies for nearly 30 yearsImage: DIW

Are the penetration rates in East Germany today lower than they are in West Germany?

I have no official numbers in front of me, but I would guess that it would be significantly lower because the population density is so much lower than in the West. Of course, given market-driven forces you look for the densely populated areas, which give you a better return for the buck. For that reason the incentive to go into more remote areas was very low.

You talked about how difficult it can be to get ADSL service in former East Germany.

Still, today, there are many customers who are annoyed that it's impossible to get ADSL at the same price as they can in an urban area. One hope was that with the digital switch-off with analog TV there were frequencies becoming available that are better to use, to transmit Internet via mobile wireless techniques instead of wired techniques.

So in other words the level of service is not as good, and is more expensive in East Germany?

It's not that it's more expensive, it's simply not there. You can be a small shop in eastern Germany or in the countryside in western Germany and you ask for an ADSL connection and they cannot service you.

Interview: Cyrus Farivar
Editor: Kate Bowen

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