A food stall in Mainz Germany

Germany, the land of restrictive wi-fi.

I’m writing this at home after a long, three-week trip to Germany. Hardly blogged from there as I usually do. The reason? German hotel wi-fi or W-LAN as it is called there.

Germans have a very ambivalent attitude to wi-fi, like they do to credit cards. I still remember the shock when only ten years ago I tried to buy booze from Munich airport and was told that I’d have to use cash and that there was a cash machine over there, thank you. Credit cards and anything that doesn’t make immediate money sense is alien to German practical thinking. Maybe ten years from now, wi-fi will be as common there as it in, say, France or Britain, but today we seem to be still at “Munich airport” conditions.

The different ways I got online and the loops I had to jump through in Germany beggar belief. Let’s forget Inter Hotel Mainz who put me off the Internet altogether by demanding €14.50 per day (or 17 cents/minute) to connect me. Let’s forget about the B&B with an otherwise good system whose owner, afraid of being hacked,  gave me a 50-strong password. “You can write it down”, he told me, “but hide the piece of paper well.”

Let’s even forget McDonald’s who pride themselves in offering wi-fi with their fare. A month before that, in Budapest, I was eating Big Macs while happily tweeting images using their free connection. In Germany, I had to get a password along with my fries, get online, register my name, address and mobile number, receive a code by text, then go back online to enter the code and access the Internet. By the time I did all that, hey, only half of the large Coke had been left.

Many hotels seem to see wi-fi as a financial burden which they must bear only because the competition offer it. (I presume they saw hot running water and en-suite WCs in the same way in the 1960s and 1970s.) Many hotel managers I met were incensed by the idea of installing routers on every floor for a proper signal. Who would pay? So they tried to scrimp money from you, any money at all: €5 per 3hrs online (which rules out smartphones) or even a fixed fee added to your room per day. And are hostels any better? Ha! There was one where you could certainly have free wi-fi at reception, but no, you’d have to pay €5 per day to access the Internet in your room.

But this is not the end of it. Because of the draconian German Internet laws (it is, for instance illegal to offer an open, non-secure network) which penalise network owners for any unlicensed downloads made through their system, hotels go to great pains not to be sued. Because they are: a copyright infringement industry has been flourishing in Germany in the past five years with lawyers sending about 500,000 letters per year with fines ranging from €200 to €1000, mostly to hotels and Internet Cafes. Two Internet monitoring companies (Evidenzia and IP Solutions) trawl the net and filesharing networks to pick up downloading (and uploading) IP addresses. They then pass them to the law firms specializing in copyright enforcement, who send out the letter demands.

It’s because of this that I had to sign declarations that I had read the German Internet and data protection laws (and understood them) and that I would not engage in any illegal activity or introduce any viruses into their system.  It is for that reason that whenever hotel receptionists gave me a username and password, always personal and time-limited, they wrote them down on a sheet of paper, dated them and asked me to countersign. Should any letter arrive from a legal firm they would have their defence ready from their network logs. And it’s because of this that you won’t find many restaurants or cafes in Germany offering wi-fi any time soon.

So let’s hear it for the good guys. The cafe chain Coffee Fellows who were a lot less anal than everybody else about free wi-fi (plus they make a great cappuccino) the wonderful  Little Paris hotel in Frankfurt, which was the only hotel in Germany with a wi-fi signal and network, as you and I understand it.