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Travelers visiting Western Europe are often impressed with the orderliness of its people, efficiency of their governments, and cleanliness of the streets. Western Europe has 7 of the world’s richest countries and 9 of the fastest download speeds anywhere. Then why is finding free wireless access so difficult in places like Germany, France, and Spain?

That is a complicated question – every country has a unique make up – but there are some general reasons why you’ll find yourself walking a lot farther in Munich than Bucharest to find a cafe with free wifi.

Reichstag berlin germanyWhy GDP Matters…And Doesn’t

How rich a country is doesn’t correlate with how fast its Internet speeds are. Just look at Romania, whose connection is more than twice as fast as America’s, despite only earning 1% their gross domestic product (GDP). Or Moldova, a country that makes less revenue per year than Haiti yet has download speeds faster than England. But it’s not really Internet speed that matters when it comes to free wireless access.

What’s more important is how many people in a given country have access to an Internet connection – something that has more to do with geography than money.

The Internet Goes Where People Live

A nation’s GDP loosely correlate with higher Internet penetration; the number of people in a country with access to the Internet. Countries like Iceland, Sweden, Australia, and Denmark are all at the top of global rankings when it comes to residents online per capita. Romania and Moldova on the other hand, have broadband penetration rates of about 14 and 40% respectively.

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All of these countries mentioned above however have some of the lowest population distributions in the world. What separates them in terms of Internet access rates is national income. The richer the country and lower the population distribution in a given country, the higher percentage of its citizens you’ll find have access to high speed Internet.

Low population distribution – that is, people not being spread out in a country – makes it cheaper for telecoms to set up their backbone infrastructure, which is typically their biggest expense. Having a high standard of living gives people enough income to get online. Having them in one place often means more bandwidth to go around. What separates Western Europe’s anemic free wireless landscape from places like southeast Asia is policy, not technology.

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Belgium, Finland, and Denmark are all wealthy with low population concentrations and high Internet penetration; but what keeps free Internet out of many their cafes is taxes. Those countries, along with their neighbors in Europe, also happen to have the highest tax rates in the world. Universal taxes on utilities, like the Internet, are common. For example, Germany’s Internet flat tax is around 25 Euros per month. Bulgarians, whose air is filled with the sweet waves of costless Internet, don’t have such a tax. They also pay the lowest rates in the European Union. (And many just don’t pay taxes.)

Aside from being expensive, there’s less economic incentive for businesses to spend money on free wireless. In general, about 6 times more people in Western Europe have broadband on their mobile phones than anywhere else in the world. In fact, the richer the country, the more people have fast Internet on their cell phone.

The Perfect Storm For Crap Connections In West Europe For Travelers

Restaurants, public buildings, and cafes aren’t as likely to pay an extra amount of cash to provide a free Internet connection in places where their patrons are happily checking Facebook on their phones. So while it’s not impossible to find free wireless in Western Europe, it can be difficult for economic reasons that are initially a bit counter-intuitive. Rich European countries may have the means to get online, but high taxes and low demand mean you might be suffering from wifi withdrawal next time you travel to Europe’s west.

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