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.
Why 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.
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.
Taxes Ain’t Cheap And No One Gives A Bleep
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.
Fair warning, Anil, but i don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing: it’d be less time looking “down” on a computer, and more time looking “up”/”at” where one is visiting/traveling – intil such time one needs to update FB / Twitter / blog / etc …
“Hi, my name is Henry, and I’m a tech/WiFi-addict …” Come to think of it, is there a five-step (anti-addiction) program? 🙂
Thanks for your post!
If you find a wireless addiction program let me know, I’ll join you! (But wait, I keep telling myself I don’t have a problem!)
I just came back from Ireland and had no problem finding free wifi.
Ireland wasn’t bad when I was there a few years ago; especially in pubs where I spent most of my eh, online time 🙂
Didn’t know about the taxes but I suspected the lack of free wifi access in Italy may be due to the fact that there’s no demand. Whatever the issue in Italy, it was more than frustrating. We’re so used to sitting down in cafes in Turkey and asking for the password (and where their electrical sockets are). It never occurs to us that they might not have wifi. 🙂
It is a shock when leaving a place where wireless is everywhere – spoils a person quickly!
Fee wifi access in Italy is illegal.
All access to wifi must be registered, as an anti-terrorism measure.
Even when taking a bus service that offers “free” wifi, you must register with your passport. When “free public wifi” is offered across major Italian cities, you must log on with your codice fiscale (even as a non-resident I have this code for tax-paying purposes) or a valid Italian cell phone number.
It’s not a question of demand.
Sometimes it’s possible to **borrow** internet from nearby apartments, but even private citizens with wifi connections are supposed to password protect their connection.
Many bars and restaurants offer free access with purchase. My recommendation is just to have an international cell phone plan with unlimited international data. I pay $19.95 per month on T-Mobile and can access email and the internet all day and night to my heart’s content – everywhere in the world, from Ancona to Zanzibar.
So it’s not free that’s illegal but anonymous access – either way it’s fascinating (and does virtually nothing to stop terrorism). I appreciate the insight.
There is now talk to eliminate anonymous Internet posting (e.g. blog comments) in New York to prevent legal liability issues. That T-Mobile deal you have is a great price by the way, especially considering western European mobile prices for data 😉
I lived many years in continental Europe. I think there are two main reasons for the poor wi-fi in Western Europe. One you mentioned being the use of mobile phones (but this tends to be expensive).
The other reason is that practically everyone has high or highish speed broadband DSL at home. So they do their web accessing at home – or at work.
That’s also a reason why there are relatively few internet cafes to be found in a lot of Western Europe.
Definitely, broadband penetration rates are a big part of the equation.
Egypt had a high wave of free wifi – everywhere! – even in local cafes that charge something like 0.2$ per a cup of tea.
This was diminished by the new trend which is cheaper for the cafes but really annoying, where the mobile phone companies (such as vodafone and the others in Egypt)install routers in those cafes that the cafe doesn’t have to pay anything for, not even the monthly wireless fee. Instead, the internet user would have to buy internet prepaid cards for one hour to use the internet. Once you are connected you are redirected to a page where you enter the secret code on your card and you are given exactly 60 minutes of relatively fast internet (depending on how strong the mobile connection is in that place) and then suddenly while pressing one link you are again redirected to that page telling you your package is over and that you should buy yourself a new hour.
Talk about having to write an email twice! lol
I hate that system and know exactly what you’re talking about. It doesn’t make much economic sense to me as the cafes probably aren’t getting a cut of the wireless money. Besides, free Internet keeps people at cafes longer which means more coffee, tea, shisha… and of course, money.
I didn’t know about the taxes, but the point about people already having access makes a lot of sense. It’s still easy to find internet cafes in Santiago because relatively recently not everyone had internet at home (or now, on smartphones), whereas in California I have no idea where I’d even start looking for an internet cafe.
People might even look at you strangely for asking where you could find an Internet cafe in California 🙂
Looking for an internet cafe in California? I’d consider starting at a Starbucks. If you can’t find a Starbucks, there is nothing I can do for you.
I had no idea about the taxes either. I don’t think we have it in Spain so far as I know (that said bar owners here would most likely ignore it anyway!). How does it work? Do bar/cafe owners have to pay a tax to the government for supplying it to customers? And wouldn’t that be a really easy tax to evade?
I was struck by the irony of following a fellow blogger’s updates from the heart of rural Indonesia recently, whilst not being able to SKYPE with my son in the heart of London! But that’s talking connections, not free wifi.
On this island it seems quite good. In fact I’ve been thinking about giving up my ADSL when my contract is up and simply using bars and cafes as if I was traveling. In the capital there are free wifi zones in the city center, and the neighboring and tiny island of El Hierro is proposing making the entire island into a wifi zone……I’m thinking of moving there!!
I don’t believe it’s a separate tax in Spain so far as I’ve read; it may however be included in property taxes and typically rolled into the end costs along the lines of a VAT making it harder to evade.
An island with free wifi – wish more cities did that too – would certainly convince me to move 🙂 Reminds me of the island nation of Niue, which also has nationwide free wireless.
I was recently in Greece and we all know of their stage in life that they are going through but when in athens internet access was great, used it in Starbucks and in a few local cafes after asking to use and found Greece to offer some good wireless internet access points
In many ways, a poor economy with a relaxed tax structure doesn’t make that too surprising.
Like someone else mentioned, maybe it’s a good thing to not have wifi access when you’re traveling on vacation in Europe. However, when travedling on business, that’s another story. Haven’t been to Europe in awhile; so I really don’t think my experiences there are relevant anymore. But I’ll be finding out soon when I head out there next summer.
Very true, everyone has a different purpose. It will be interesting to hear what you think of the wifi landscape once you arrive 🙂
You’re only half right there… In Germany one piece of legislation is the biggest stumbling block: as a proprietor of any internet access you are legally responsible for ALL activity on this network! So you’re providing free wifi, a customer uses this to hack into the Pentagon and you as network provider have part responsibility for this…
A factor, in Germany, good point. Though it’s not the case in other countries like England for example, where courts have ruled the opposite.
This article is so true. Except on the part of Nordic countries. At least in Finland there is many free Wifi hotspots. Almost any cafe in city centres have them and I don’t think (but I am not sure either) that those places pay any tax for it. Internet is fast and cheap, but many public spots (like parks) lack the service.
In Germany however, things are truly ridiculous. Wlan hotspots are provided by different companies and usually you have to pay the company to get access to their hotspot (and you never know which bar/cafe/restaurant uses which hotspot). Connections are slow and they tend to lose their signal very often. There are some free hotspots with limited time constraints which tends to be very tedious. Apparently the legislation is overwhelmingly strict in Germany which is a shame.
What about Austria , Czech Republic ? Slovakia , Hungary , and Poland ? That is where I am going .
Eastern Europe is very, very, good in general: https://foxnomad.com/2012/03/15/why-is-the-internet-in-romania-so-damn-fast/