Subscriber OnlyEurope

How Germany became the land that telecommunications forgot

Mobile giants were given three years to tackle 500 data dead zones around the country, but more than 400 remain

When Berlin commuters commence their hour-long train ride to the VW headquarters in Wolfsburg each morning, the race is not for seats but mobile phone reception.

Shortly after the train departs Berlin heading west, you can watch your mobile signal drop, bar by bar, to nothing. If you want to finish a phone call or keep reading the news, then be quick. The rail link between the German capital and Germany’s largest company is 200km of Funklöcher – or mobile coverage dead zones.

It’s not just Brandenburg, surrounding Berlin, either: head through Bavaria in the south or Schleswig-Holstein in the north and you find that Germany is often the land that telecommunications forgot.

On Monday, Germany’s big three mobile giants were hauled in to the federal communications authority in advance of a December 31st deadline. The bad news: after being given three years to tackle 500 data dead zones around the country, more than 400 remain.


Germany’s mobile problems date back decades. Until 2019, its three mobile operators were not even legally obliged to provide full coverage and so installed masts only where it was most profitable for them: cities and towns.

Huge complaints from rural areas triggered a law change and, as part of the last 2019 mobile frequencies auction, operators committed to closing gaps in their coverage networks by the end of this year.

Through a mixture of investment and statistical trickery, they appear to have made considerable progress – but not enough.

The three companies report that around 80 per cent of the country have access to 4G or 5G, the latest mobile data standards, the latter up nearly a fifth in a year.

Dig deeper, though, and it becomes clear that Germany measures mobile signal to “households”, ie residential areas, weighted against thinly or non-populated areas.

Even by this more generous measure, households in around 18.6 per cent of the country still have no high-speed data coverage, relying on the older 2G network and sometimes just one operator. Up to three per cent of households – an area half the size of half of Leinster – still have no mobile coverage at all, not even for emergency calls.

The reality on the ground – when you look at signal by the map and not households – is often even worse than the official figures suggest.

“The mobile networks in Germany are good but not good enough,” conceded Tanja Richter, technical head of Vodafone Germany.

Telecommunication companies complain of complicated bureaucratic and planning hurdles to erect new masts, in particular from the Nimby (not in my back yard) brigade.

Then there are geographical challenges in a massive country with large swathes of forests, moors and mountains.

But allowing companies choose their own mast sites – measured by “household” and not area – has been compounded by lack of competition from just three operators: a lower level of competition than in many European countries.

“If there had been four or five operators with conditions linked to area and not households, the network expansion would be further on,” said Thomas Rudl, digital infrastructure expert with “In Germany mobile prices are high by European standards, in particular data, while the coverage is poor.”

In advance of Monday’s crunch meeting, federal communications minister Volker Wissing insisted that “legal options should be used to sanction self-inflicted delays”. The telecommunications regulator Klaus Müller called the progress “disappointing” but declined to comment further on possible sanctions

A final condition from the 2019 auction – that mobile phone companies provide uninterrupted signal on major motorways, waterways and railways by December 2022 – has not been met. The next goal: 2025.