I was in Düsseldorf last weekend and it took about 45 minutes to find a free wifi hotspot. For Internet lovers, German cities may feel like a barren desert, with a very occasional wifi oasis in the shape of Starbucks or McCafe. Take a stroll around the centre of any American town and you’ll experience the opposite. A lush supply of free wifi zones in cafes, restaurants and hotels where you can surf until your heart’s content.
Even German airports lag behind the rest of the world in terms of wifi access but this is slowly beginning to change. Passengers are often permitted to go online for a short time before having to pay in order to continue. Frankfurt Airport has offered this system for more than a year while Munich Airport started offering it in January. Cologne is one of the few German airports that offers full free wifi – I flew from there roughly two months ago and I was delighted to find totally free wifi in Germany…it feels sort of like finding your keys after they’ve been missing for a week. That same feeling of elation tinged with relief.
Airports and train stations are usually boring places involving a lot of waiting. Nowhere more so than Germany. Widespread free Internet access would significantly benefit tourists and business travellers, especially international business travellers, constrained by their foreign telephone/Internet contracts. I was very impressed on a recent trip to Ireland. The intercity trains offer free wifi, along with many tour buses. In fact, the Irish intend to install wifi on all city buses as well. I was travelling through the centre of Dublin on the bus, making a video call via Skype on my iPod Touch. It felt great. Contrast that with Germany where I’d have to fork out a lot of money to use wifi on Germany’s modern high speed rail network.
So what’s going on? Why are the Germans so slow to embrace free wifi? Nobody seems sure. How come Cologne Airport offers full free wifi and Munich Airport doesn’t? Again, nobody really seems sure. Arguments range from legal issues with content downloaded by users to competition between companies as well as the emergence of 3G networks. Maybe the answer lies somewhere in between all of these ideas. In any case, I’ll prepare for the worst whenever I travel through Germany – that means loading up on podcasts, news and maps before I travel.
Image Note: this image is released under the creative commons license (source: rubenard/ Flickr)