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Germany deploys waste collectors to map mobile blackspots

On a street in Wusterhausen, around an hour's drive north of Berlin, a man paces intently, holding his mobile phone in front of him.

Jonny Basner, 21, drives the local garbage truck around the district of Wusterhausen, with the mobile network measuring device 'Echtzeit' on November 3rd, 2022
Jonny Basner, 21, drives the local garbage truck around the district of Wusterhausen, with the mobile network measuring device 'Echtzeit' on November 3rd, 2022. Photo: Lara Bommers/AFP

“I’m looking for network, because here this area is not good,” says Arek Karasinski, in town on a business trip from Poland.

Issues with phone signal are a source of constant frustration for the residents of Wusterhausen, which sits in one of Germany’s many blackspots, out of reach of any mobile network.

“We’re here in Germany, an industrial nation, and we have all of these dead zones,” says Matthias Noa, head of waste management firm AWU.

Noa was so exasperated that when the local government asked if they could use his garbage trucks to do something about it, he quickly agreed.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How Germany is trying to tackle its slow internet problem

Since the summer, the trucks have been fitted with a device that measures the signal quality on their routes across the district of Ostprignitz-Ruppin.

Because their work takes them everywhere across the area, they are the perfect vehicles for the job.

“We go out on the ground, into every nook,” says Werner Nuese, the vice-president of the local council, who was not satisfied with the efforts made by public bodies or private groups to plot the signal problems.

Jonny Basner, a driver participating in the programme, knows the trouble well. “It would be great if I had enough signal to reach the depot from the villages (on the route),” he says.

Trackers have been handed out to hikers and cyclists to fill in the gaps left by the rubbish collectors.

On a map, Nuese points out the spots marked in red where the signal is at its worst.

“Even if this is a rural area in the northeast of Germany, we shouldn’t be forgotten. That’s our demand,” he says.

‘On the terrace’

A short walk shows the issues people are facing.

“Outside on the terrace I can get signal, but in the house there is nothing, no one can reach me on the phone,” says Dieter Mueller in the village of Bantikow.

About 10 kilometres (six miles) away in Wusterhausen itself, Marko Neuendorf says he has cancelled his phone contract “because there simply is no signal here”.

The region would become more attractive to investors and tourists if the mobile network were better, local officials believe.

“Every cottage industry has gone digital, every single electrician uses a tablet to order spare parts. It’s not just big companies that are more digital,” says Noa.

Council official Nuese says medical spas in the area have been getting poor reviews “because the signal is very bad”.

“It’s a measurable economic disadvantage,” he says. The obsolescence of a lot of Germany’s infrastructure and administration
shot to the top of the political agenda with the exit of Chancellor Angela Merkel from office a year ago.

READ ALSO: Fact check: Is Germany’s internet really that bad?

According to official data, standard LTE coverage, equivalent to 4G, is at 100 percent. But in a survey by the price comparison site Verivox, published earlier this year, most people said they regularly experienced a lack of signal when using their phones.

In 2018, then economy minister Peter Altmaier said he was “very annoyed to have to call back three, four times because it cut off” when making calls from his car on official business.

By producing more detailed signal maps, the council hopes to encourage a response from mobile network operators and to lobby the government for more support.

By Lara Bommers

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TECH

How German authorities are cracking down on Google

Germany's antitrust regulator on Wednesday criticised the way Google handles users' data and threatened action against the US tech giant.

How German authorities are cracking down on Google

Data collected by Google was used to “create very detailed user profiles which the company can exploit for advertising and other purposes”, the Federal Cartel Authority said.

Based on a preliminary assessment, the watchdog determined that users were not given sufficient clarity on the “far-reaching processing of their data across services” by the tech company.

“General and indiscriminate data retention…  is not permissible” without giving users choice, the watchdog said.

The Federal Cartel Authority was therefore “currently planning to oblige the company to change the choices offered”, it said, adding that it expected to issue its final decision this year.

READ ALSO: Germany asks EU to rein in Twitter after ‘arbitrary’ bans by CEO Musk

“Google’s business model relies heavily on the processing of user data,” said the authority’s chief Andreas Mundt.

The digital giant had “access to relevant data gathered from a large number of different services” which meant it enjoyed “a strategic advantage over other companies”, Mundt said in a statement.

Google said in a statement it would continue its “constructive dialogue” with the Authority “in order to address their concerns”.

The warning comes after Google was classified as a company of “paramount significance across markets” in 2021.

The designation gives Germany’s regulators the option to intervene earlier against potentially uncompetitive practices by huge digital companies.

Wielding the new legislation, the watchdog has also opened probes into US tech giants such as Amazon and Facebook.

At the end of last year, the regulator shelved a separate investigation into Google’s News Showcase service, after the firm made “important adjustments” to ease competition concerns.

Big tech companies have been facing increasing scrutiny around the globe over their dominant positions as well as their tax practices.   

In July 2022, the European Parliament adopted the Digital Markets Act to curb the market dominance of Big Tech, with violators facing fines of up to 10 percent of their annual global sales.

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