What could slow down the fiber

Too bad internet for home office : The paralyzing network expansion is taking revenge in the corona crisis

The corona crisis shows once again how important nationwide digital infrastructure is in Germany. Network operators and Internet providers are currently emphasizing that all networks can cope well with the additional burden of home office and video conferencing - but of course this only applies to regions in which a fast Internet connection via cellular, copper or fiber optic cables is actually available. Anyone who is now sitting in a "white spot" of broadband coverage may not be able to work from home in the company network or park their children in front of a streaming service.

The FDP member of the Bundestag and infrastructure expert Daniela Kluckert sees the federal government as complicit. "A rapid expansion of the gigabit networks was overslept, that takes revenge in the crisis," she tells the Tagesspiegel. The reasons for the sluggish gigabit expansion were in some cases years ago. "Before 2019 in particular, valuable years were given away, which is why many areas are still only supplied with Internet access below 30 Mbit / s."

In response to a small inquiry from Kluckert and the FDP parliamentary group, the Federal Ministry of Transport (BMVI) provides detailed information on how many millions of funding the Ministry has invested since the start of the federal broadband funding program. The documents are available to the Tagesspiegel in advance.

It can hardly be due to the money

Since 2016, more than 460 million euros have been paid out to support municipalities, industrial parks and hospitals with gigabit expansion. In contrast, funds of 900 million euros were still available in 2019 as “residual funds” - funding that no one has ever collected and thus remains in the Digital Infrastructure special fund.

Also in the current year a funding volume of 33 million euros has only been paid out until the beginning of March. Extrapolated to 2020, this would mean that in 2020 only an estimated 185 million euros will be requested from the funding program - without the economic consequences of the coronavirus epidemic already being taken into account in this calculation. FDP politician Kluckert therefore urges the government to use a large-scale awareness campaign to promote the funding program. The application process must also be streamlined, she demands.

The Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure explains that the funds made available are not called upon more extensively, among other things with long coordination chains at the municipal level that are necessary for the approval of funding. There are also problems between municipalities and building contractors: "Contract negotiations between the grant recipients and the expanding companies are often lengthy," says the answer to the FDP request.

"It can't be built any faster"

Ralph Sonnenschein, who heads the broadband infrastructure division at the German Association of Cities and Towns (DStGB), sees it similarly. He is convinced that the outflow of funds from the federal funding program, which is perceived as slow, is not a sign of mismanagement, but simply reflects the factual circumstances. “It cannot be built any faster at the moment and you only pay for completed construction phases. No money will be called up beforehand. "

In the current process of the Ministry of Transport, he sees no acute omissions. "The previous governments that had failed for far too long on a market-driven expansion of broadband networks in competition and refused to take any noteworthy funding in hand."

Corona will slow down broadband expansion

Even before the epidemic, however, there were clear bottlenecks “in planning and, above all, construction work”, explains Sonnenschein. This means that telecommunications companies are pushing for long implementation periods as part of the joint network expansion with cities and municipalities. With model contracts, the municipal associations are currently trying to set new standards in coordination with the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure and to shorten the duration of negotiations.

The fact that the coronavirus pandemic will now also reduce planning and construction capacities cannot change that either. In an emergency package on March 8, the federal government announced, among other things, that it would reduce procedural requirements for fiber-optic expansion and temporarily suspend approval procedures. At the time of going to press, the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure could not answer whether specific plans have been implemented since then.

For Stephan Albers, managing director of the Breko Association, trouble-free network operation in times of crisis has priority over all expansion plans. But he also sees that the great importance of a functioning digital infrastructure is now moving into the focus of people and companies. This gives hope that the gigabit expansion will continue at a much faster pace than before after the crisis, he explains to the Tagesspiegel on request.

Broadband funding program: Big differences depending on the federal state

For 2019, the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure has also broken down as part of the small inquiry in which federal states the most projects were successfully funded by the federal government.

Here, strong differences become visible: city states such as Bremen, Berlin and Hamburg do not make significant use of the funding pot. Lower Saxony and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania account for more than 40 percent of all subsidies spent in 2019; In contrast, regional states such as Baden-Württemberg or Brandenburg did not allow broadband investments to be subsidized by the Ministry of Transport last year.

Nevertheless, the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure plans to further increase funding. A draft for a BMVI funding program for "gray spots" is currently with the EU Commission. There is a dispute about possible upper limits for funding - instead of simply closing the gap, Andreas Scheuer (CSU) is pushing for funding based on the watering can principle with this draft. Both business associations and the EU fear that the ministry could thus come into direct competition with business-driven expansion.

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