A column by Marco Fuchs: thoughts about time and space

Germany's Internet gaps hamper innovation and damage prosperity

August 31, 2020. The buzzword "digitalisation" has been haunting social and political debates for decades. In recent years, it has been possible to obtain any number of answers and opinions on exactly what it is all about. The Covid-19 pandemic has made it even clearer to many people that secure and stable access to broadband Internet has become the linchpin not only of economic activity, but is also increasingly shaping our social lives.

For me, the dependence on the Internet became very clear once again only recently as a result of an internal OHB event. A few days ago, IT informed me that our communication system is being converted to "Unified Communications" and that we will be making calls exclusively via the Internet in the future. This means that we will no longer have telephones on our desks – a tremendous change, which makes it all the more clear that we will be saying a final farewell to the analogue age.

Pandemic drives digitalisation

Even though a complete switch to remote office and digital work is not possible at OHB – although a large part of the work on our satellites is done on computers, satellite assembly and testing remain physical activities to be executed in the clean room – we too have made our everyday work much more digital during the pandemic and, to my own surprise, have done it very well. Other sectors of the economy were able to move their workflows 1:1 to remote offices, and many branches of industry have finally come to terms with the advantages of Smart Factories.

The digitalisation of the economy also enjoys high priority in politics and is being promoted in many ways. Major projects such as the European data infrastructure Gaia-X, which was initiated and is being driven forward by the Federal Minister of Economics and Technology, show that political decision-makers are playing a key role in ensuring that the German and European economies do not fall behind.

Lack of Internet access leads to social disadvantage

The Internet offers a lot of possibilities, but conversely it also means that poor or no access to the Internet lead to disadvantages that can have immense consequences. Participation in social life depends on how we are connected to each other and how we communicate; for many of us, the restrictions on our freedom of movement that we had to endure at the beginning of the pandemic were offset by the often immediate relocation of activities to virtual spaces. Not only have the major streaming platforms made exorbitant profits, but many other businesses have also reacted quickly and made their offerings available to the public via stream as far as possible.

It is already an established fact that online commerce will be one of the big winners of the pandemic. However, the communication behaviour in circles of friends, clubs and families has also changed decisively: where personal encounters had to be cancelled, video chats were used, Angela Merkel recommended that the younger generation record podcasts for their grandparents and athletes met for online competitions. However, all this was and is only possible if the Internet connection is stable, reliable and affordable, and anyone who thinks that we in Germany shouldn't have any problems with this in view of our general First World standard is sorely mistaken.

Germany lags behind

First of all, Germany has a huge speed problem in international comparison: in the annual "Speedtest Global Index", Germany is frighteningly far behind for a country that wants to be considered a global high-tech country. Just how far behind Germany is in the expansion of its digital infrastructure is shown by a comparison with the front-runner South Korea. In June 2020, the average download speed for mobile Internet applications in Germany was 39 megabits per second (Mbps), while in South Korea it was 110 Mbps – almost three times as fast. And while the Asians were able to double their speed within a year, Internet speed in Germany was relatively stagnant.

In addition to this speed problem, however, there is also a problem of connectivity. This means that depending on the area where they live people in Germany might have limited access to fast Internet. In metropolitan areas and larger cities, fast Internet is generally available, whereas in rural areas and small communities there might not only be no access to fast Internet but no Internet access at all. Experts then speak of so-called "white spots".

For a country like Germany, this is a sad state of affairs. Especially in times like these, when, as mentioned, we are dependent on digital forms of communication and work. What's more, without nationwide, fast Internet, we are hampering innovation processes and thus damaging our prosperity in the medium term.

If we look back at our own private Internet usage in recent weeks and months and then realise that four million households in Germany have no or only limited Internet access, it quickly becomes clear that this cannot be a sustainable state of affairs, not to mention the economic effects of this inequality. The question of how to accelerate the expansion of broadband in rural areas is driving many political decision-makers, which is why OHB has submitted a proposal on how to support broadband supply using satellite technology in the future.

A dedicated satellite constellation could close gaps

For the specific case of covering white spots in Germany, we have worked out a solution using geostationary satellites which can be very specifically targeted at Germany and in which two satellites could supply 500,000 households with data rates of 100 Gbit/s. Since the white spots in broadband coverage are spread all over Germany, a satellite-based solution could be realised much faster than the terrestrial connection of the respective households. In view of an increasingly digitalised world, there is no question that Germany's goal of offering a nationwide modern fibre optic supply in the medium term must be implemented urgently. It is truly shameful that the world's fourth-largest economy is lagging so far behind in this respect.

Today, however, access to the Internet is also a factor that has gained in relevance from the point of view of sovereignty and strategic safeguarding of resources. It is therefore only logical that Europe should also position itself in this area: Thierry Breton, the French EU Commissioner for Internal Market and Services, who is also responsible for the EU space programmes Galileo and Copernicus, recently proposed the establishment of an independent European satellite constellation for Internet supply.

I support this proposal not only as a European space entrepreneur, but also as a European citizen, because the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated that secure access to the Internet is a necessity for every European. Against the background of the intensifying global disputes about the sovereignty of data and the influence on its use, it is of great interest to Europe to position itself self-sufficiently in this area.

Should such a programme be realised, it would probably involve a few hundred satellites. So far, there is a danger that such satellite constellations will be built up without Europe being involved. Ultimately, it is also a matter of connecting rural areas and preventing a further rural exodus. However, the timetable would have to allow this to happen quickly, i.e. during this period of the European Commission. This is the only way I think it is likely to catch up with projects like Space X's Starlink.

Personal details:

Born in 1962, Marco Fuchs studied law in Berlin, Hamburg and New York. He worked as an attorney in New York and Frankfurt am Main from 1992 to 1995. In 1995, he joined OHB, the company that his parents had built up. He has been Chief Executive Officer of OHB SE since 2000 and of OHB System AG since 2011. Marco Fuchs is married and has two children.