On 26 September, after 16 years of Angela Merkel and her CDU party (plus different coalition partners) being in power, Germany will elect a new government. This will result in a change in the make-up of the Bundestag (Germany’s parliament) and a shift in economic and social policy.
In the field of telecommunications, Germany has fallen behind other developed countries when it comes to the roll-out of high-performance internet connectivity. These challenges are recognised by Germany’s political parties, which want to prioritise network expansion and accelerate internet speed, especially in rural areas. However, there are significant differences in the way they plan to achieve this.
While the CDU is leading in the polls, the German electoral system does not automatically grant government participation to the winner, so the party’s future influence is not certain.
Still, the CDU (and its Bavarian sister party CSU) plans to ensure all areas have network coverage by 2024 by installing mobile antennas (among other methods), with the state-owned mobile infrastructure company (Mobilfunkinfrastrukturgesellschaft) building the 5G network.
In addition, CDU/CSU wants to accelerate network expansion by speeding up official approval. However, it’s not exactly clear how this will be done. Where the viability gap funding scheme does not lead to new broadband networks, the municipalities should push ahead with broadband expansion on their own.
Die Grünen (the Greens) want to expand fibre networks by using subsidies, with – inter alia – the municipality building the passive infrastructure and a private company operating the network.
The Greens also want to give citizens the right to have fast internet access. Exercising this right should involve little bureaucracy and be easy to enforce. Users should be compensated and providers fined if the promised speed is not met.
Where a provider fails to remedy gaps in mobile network coverage, local roaming must be ordered by the competent authority if necessary, of course with corresponding compensation for the network operators.
The social democratic SPD party has been losing voter support in recent years, although recent polls suggest the rate of decline has slowed. The party aims to transform Germany into a ‘gigabit society’ by legislating that all households and businesses be entitled to a bandwidth of at least one gigabit. Concrete, legally defined expansion and provision obligations and corresponding targets should be created. Network operators will be legally obliged to achieve such goals. However, it remains unclear exactly how this will be achieved and what role existing network operators and the state-owned mobile infrastructure company will play.
The Free Democratic Party wants to harness genuine competition in the mobile market to help make high-performance mobile connectivity available nationwide. The FDP aims to do this by developing an efficient auction procedure controlled by the federal government, although there is little detail on how this would work.
In the fixed sector, the party wants to accelerate the expansion of high-speed networks via gigabit vouchers for households and SMEs, while network neutrality is to be secured under competition law. However, priority should be given to critical applications such as telesurgery and autonomous driving.
The right-wing Alternative für Deutschland wants to enhance infrastructure in rural areas by implementing a ‘national roaming’ scheme. To make this possible, customers should be able to seamlessly use the networks of different providers and without additional cost. The AfD wants to reform the way frequencies are currently auctioned, which, the AfD believes, hinders the roll-out of a national roaming scheme and drives up prices for end users.
There is some scepticism towards 5G in the AfD’s election programme, with the party wanting 5G’s expansion to be accompanied by further research into potential health risks and citizens to be informed about the results.
The socialist DIE LINKE party wants the state to play a prominent role in network expansion. For example, municipalities should be able to operate their own fixed networks. It also wants network neutrality to be anchored in Germany’s constitution.
For mobile telephony, the party proposes a single network operated by a publicly owned company, believing that this would be more cost-effective than parallel networks and reduce radiation exposure. (Private companies could still offer telecommunications services via the network.) However, DIE LINKE does not mention that bringing three (soon to be four) privately operated mobile networks into a single publicly owned network would bring significant challenges (e.g. a requirement to amend the constitution).
The overarching goals of the parties are clear: introduce high-speed networks for everyone as quickly as possible. However, how they propose to do this differs significantly, particularly the extent to which the state would be involved and whether network expansion should be achieved via the carrot (like vouchers) or the stick (like fines).
It is difficult to predict what challenges the telecommunications sector will face after the poll, as the electoral landscape is uncertain. None of the other parties want to form a coalition with the AfD and the latest polls point to a CDU/CSU-FDP coalition failing to achieve the necessary majority. This suggests that at least one of the left-wing parties will be part of the ruling coalition, so operating companies should prepare for some of their proposals being implemented.