romania sidewalk sign

Romania, and Bucharest specifically, is something of a travel blogger’s digital fantasy come true. Walk down most streets, stop on any corner, whip out your smart phone and more often than not you’ll find a wireless connection. That’s open. No password required; generally because a commodity as common as an Internet connection here isn’t worth stealing.

In fact, Romania has the world’s second fastest Internet at about 15 megabits per second (Mbps), second behind only South Korea. To put that in perspective, that’s nearly 5 times the average connection an American has in their home. So how does a country with less than 1% of the United States GDP and 50th on the Human Development Index (HDI) – compared to South Korea’s number 15 ranking – jump to the front of the online race?

Yes, there are the technological components for those binary bits to run along but it’s who’s behind those wires and how they got there that’s a more interesting story.

red building bucharestMore Than Nuts And Bolts

There’s a natural tendency for most of us to think that Romania was probably a late newcomer to the digital revolution and therefore had the benefit of installing the latest equipment. If that reasoning were true, then Bhutan, the latest country online would have the world’s fastest Internet. (And America, where the Internet was invented, would be creeping along at 13kbps like Congo, the current world’s slowest.)

Internet speed has a lot to do with good infrastructure but even the best equipment in the world won’t help without well trained engineers who can organize those online connections efficiently.

Going Geek Starts At An Early Age

Romania’s fast Internet may seem like an anomaly at first – until you take a look at its neighbors. Bulgaria has the world’s 3rd fastest connection and Ukraine 8th. Go a bit north and you’ll find Latvia and Lithuania taking up the 4th and 5th spots respectively. Much like Romania, these countries have a tradition of a mathematics and science-heavy curriculum in their education process beginning early on. The typical Romanian student sees more than 2.5 times the amount of mathematics education and nearly 8 times the amount of computer training than an American by the time the reach high school [PDF]. There is also some anecdotal evidence that Romanian classrooms get more girls involved in the sciences and math [PDF].

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teddy bears romaniaSome consider the ‘hard’ sciences to have been an intellectual outlet during the repressive years under Communism. The exact set of circumstances that have created this tilt are complex but the results are clear – Romania has the most certified information technology (IT) specialists in the European Union (EU) and are 6th worldwide [PDF]. Those of you running Windows 7’s default anti-virus suite should know your computer is being protected by a program developed by Romanian software engineers.

Now that you have the base of engineers – or Romanian geeks as I’ll affectionately call them – let’s look at the unique landscape they’ve helped create and operate in.

The Straight Ethernet Lines From Communism To Capitalism

Romania might have one of the world’s fastest Internet connections but it has a mediocre broadband penetration rate; about half that of the EU average. Only 14% of the population, roughly 2.9 million people in a geographically small area. That geographic area is also remarkably unregulated in telecom terms which is probably why Romania has had a somewhat rotating theater of hundreds of Internet service providers over the last 12 years. This remarkable ad-hoc form of competitive capitalism is one of the reasons why Internet bandwidth is incredibly cheap in Romania.

You have telecoms and ISPs laying down wires, or raising them depending on the situation; practically no regulation of the market, relatively few people getting online, plus a high nerd-to-population ratio. When they come together here’s how you get the world’s second fastest Internet.

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slice of cakeRomania’s Layer Cake Of Connectivity

Major fiber optic connections connect Romania to the rest of the world; these connections being more-or-less owned and maintained by large service providers. Within neighborhoods you tend to have relatively smaller local Ethernet local area networks (LANs) that metaphorically sit between a Romanian computer in a house and the major service provider. There are thousands of these throughout the country – there has to be as although the connection is fast, is doesn’t go very far. These LANs act as middlemen to the Internet in a sense; the benefit being they can all negotiate with the major ISPs, forcing prices down. This is what happens when you don’t regulate your nerds.

This arrangement wouldn’t work in the United States for several reasons. Rules and laws would certainly get in the way and you couldn’t realistically run this type of Ethernet patchwork system over the much larger distances you find in America. Also, there is very little competition between ISPs since most run a practical monopoly in most parts of the country.

It is also worth noting that there are about 150 more computer engineers per person in Romania than there are in the US. That would make it difficult to find enough people to run such networks, let alone foster an environment that would create innovative ways to connect them.

I’ve left out many technical details and this is something of an over-simplification; I focused on conveying the major points in response to the question of why Romanians have such a (damn) fast Internet connection.