Berlin Is A Tech Hub, So Why Are Germany's Internet Speeds So Slow? Germany is Europe's largest economy, but business leaders warn it is in danger of losing its edge because of sluggish Internet connections. The government has promised to speed things up.
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Berlin Is A Tech Hub, So Why Are Germany's Internet Speeds So Slow?

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Berlin Is A Tech Hub, So Why Are Germany's Internet Speeds So Slow?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now it's time for All Tech Considered.

(SOUNDBITE OF ULRICH SCHNAUSS' "NOTHING HAPPENS IN JUNE")

SHAPIRO: New technologies have already disrupted the lives of taxi drivers, secretaries and business owners. We're going to spend the next few weeks looking at what's ripe for disruption next. We start in Germany. It's Europe's largest economy, and it could lose its edge because of sluggish internet connections. From Berlin, Esme Nicholson reports on the growing frustration with one of the world's biggest telecoms.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).

ESME NICHOLSON, BYLINE: The flourishing tech scene here in Berlin attracts talent from across the globe. At a startup incubator in the west of the city, an international team has just launched an app called SPRT, which, as the name suggests, connects sports enthusiasts. Amy Cooper, who came here from Britain in June, is editing a promotional video with her colleagues. Cooper, who's 20, says that Berlin's internet speed feels like the dial-up days her parents reminisce about.

AMY COOPER: We're working in a co-working office where there's loads of startups. Everything's online. We use it, like, every second of the day, so it's so important for us that it works, and it's reliable. And most of the time, it's not, and that can be really frustrating.

NICHOLSON: Claudia Engfeld from the Berlin Chamber of Commerce and Industry says 70 percent of the capital's businesses have complained to them about inadequate broadband. Engfeld says it's not only an issue for new tech companies but also for the city's established engineering firms.

CLAUDIA ENGFELD: If you're doing 3D printing in an industrial level, you'll need to be fast. You can't wait two days till your machine has communicated to the printer to do something. This is a disadvantage that Berlin-based entrepreneurs have in comparison to other cities throughout the world.

NICHOLSON: Engfeld says connections are so patchy in some parts of the city, companies have had to move premises or ask the staff to work from home. Many CEOs point the finger at Deutsche Telekom, the former state provider which still dominates the domestic market. Instead of installing fiber-optic cables, Deutsche Telekom decided to optimize the old copper telephone-wire system.

ENGFELD: It's the technology that's the problem. In Germany, you will find almost everywhere copper cable that's not capable to go faster than 250 Mbit per second. The average reality is about 50 Mbit per second. That's quite poor.

NICHOLSON: According to the OECD, less than 2 percent of Germany's broadband connections are carried by pure fiber-optic systems. Deutsche Telekom spokesperson Georg von Wagner insists that most customers don't need anything more.

GEORG VON WAGNER: (Through interpreter) Of course, we could have concentrated on fiber-optic cables and given some people in Germany broadband speeds of up to a gigabit. But the rest of the country would only have an average connection of 16 megabits.

NICHOLSON: Wagner says Deutsche Telekom compromised by improving its copper wire system, giving the majority of customers access to speeds of up to 50 megabits per second. Tech policy journalist Tomas Rudl says Telekom's fiber-optic strategy, or lack of one, was short-sighted. And He says that the government also has to take its share of the blame.

TOMAS RUDL: (Through interpreter) Although Deutsche Telekom was privatized, the state is still one of its major shareholders. So it's within the government's own interest to ensure that its infrastructure policies and funding benefit a major German job provider.

NICHOLSON: But it seems the government is catching on. Chancellor Angela Merkel, who only five years ago was mocked for describing the Internet as uncharted territory, has promised to help subsidize the rollout of fiber-optic broadband by 2025. For Amy Cooper at the Berlin startup SPRT, it's too little, too late.

COOPER: Should you really have to think about those things in Berlin - you know, in one of the biggest and most important tech cities in Europe?

NICHOLSON: And she says when the Internet invariably goes down, it's no use turning your mobile. She says Germany's cellphone system is just as bad. For NPR News, I'm Esme Nicholson in Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MINOTAUR SHOCK'S "MY BURR")

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