The right to “fast” internet was introduced by the previous government as part of the amendment to the Telecommunications Act (TKG) and is set to take effect this summer. Once the Federal Network Agency (BNetzA) has determined that a specific area is underserved and has obligated a company to expand its services, users are entitled to this right.
The law only provides broad guidelines for what constitutes underservice, leaving the specifics to be determined by the BNetzA. This has resulted in heated debates among ministries, businesses, and consumer advocates. Ultimately, the law has established the “minimum bandwidth, upload rate, and latency used by at least 80 percent of consumers nationwide” as the minimum requirement, with some loopholes allowing for further reduction. The opposition, including Tabea Rößner, referred to this as a “deceptive package” and a “right to slow internet.”
However, to ensure that the often business-friendly BNetzA doesn’t have the final say, the Bundestag negotiated additional clauses in the final law. The ordinance requires the approval of the Digital Committee, and the Federal Council and the Federal Ministry of Digital Infrastructure and Transport (BMDV) also have a say. Moreover, the law specifically refers to a “30 Mbps product” that should enable essential services such as video calls or VPN connections from home offices. The initial government draft only mentioned 10 Mbps as a reference.
The BNetzA dismisses the Bundestag’s prescribed benchmark with a rather questionable argument: it claims that the term “30 Mbps product” should not be equated with the actual speed of internet connections, but rather refers to “up to” claims made by providers in their promotional brochures. However, regular surveys show that many customers do not achieve the internet speeds that providers promise.
Tabea Rößner argues, “Fairly, the universal service is calculated based on the bandwidth used by the majority, or 80 percent of users. However, it raises doubts about the data used for the consultation report.” Rößner points out that the BNetzA relied on information provided by service providers for its calculations, despite knowing for many years that there are significant discrepancies between the speeds advertised by companies and the actual speeds delivered. The agency should have its own measuring methods to determine the available and utilized bandwidths.
The first phase of the consultation ended in late January. In its statement on the BNetzA proposal, the Federal Association of Consumer Centers (Vzbv) already drew attention to the questionable data. “Providers can define the minimum bandwidth themselves, which is why it’s not surprising that the minimum bandwidth used is relatively low,” says Susanne Blohm, a digital and media expert at Vzbv.
Furthermore, the BNetzA did not consider that multiple people typically live in a household and frequently use the internet simultaneously. Consumer advocates are calling for the minimum download speed to be initially set at 30 Mbps. Interestingly, the longtime head of Vzbv, Klaus Müller, is expected to succeed the outgoing president of BNetzA, Jochen Homann.
Desired Accelerated Expansion
The BNetzA’s proposal also faces criticism from the other coalition partners. Jens Zimmermann, the spokesperson for digital policy of the SPD parliamentary group, says that the opinions submitted during the hearing process must first be evaluated. He hopes and expects that the minimum service will ultimately be higher and must be higher, ensuring widespread coverage. Zimmermann emphasizes that with each expansion step, the universal service obligation must also expand. According to Zimmermann, the law provides for regular reviews and adjustments. He says that the expansion of gigabit infrastructure, both commercially and publicly funded, must be “massively accelerated and intensified” to achieve widespread access to high-speed internet. Zimmermann believes that the universal service, which only guarantees minimum coverage, cannot achieve this on its own.
Maximilian Funke-Kaiser, the spokesperson for digital policy of the FDP parliamentary group, also emphasizes the priority of privately driven expansion. The universal service to guarantee minimum requirements should remain the “exception” and only ensure basic telecommunications services.
Nevertheless, both the committee and the federal government strive to achieve widespread access to the internet as quickly as possible. All remaining areas with inadequate coverage should be connected, “if necessary, using advanced technologies such as satellite internet.” Funke-Kaiser confirms that the final requirements will be determined in close consultation with coalition partners based on the consultation document.
Upcoming Public Debate
The CDU, now in opposition, takes a more reserved position. During the last legislative period, the Union consistently advocated for a stable and practical implementation of the legal entitlement, without going overboard, according to Reinhard Brandl, the spokesperson for digital policy of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group. However, one of the core concerns of the Union faction during the TKG amendment was to engage in an in-depth discussion in the relevant committee of the German Bundestag before the authority made its decision.
The Green Party’s Rößner is looking forward to the public discussion and the increased awareness of the issue. Nevertheless, the goal is clear: “Just as electricity or mail is delivered to every household, regardless of location, access to high-capacity broadband connections must also be guaranteed,” says Rößner. “And this right must be enforceable.”