Does the government offer free internet

WiFi on the go: free internet everywhere

Peter Stelzel-Morawietz, Thomas Rau

WLAN enables free internet almost everywhere. But it's not that simple: Everything about WiFi communities, hotspot tariffs, use in buses, trains and planes, and the security of public networks.

EnlargeWiFi on the go: this is how it works via tethering or a mobile router
© iStockphoto.com/MarsBars

Anyone who wants to be online while on the move can either connect to the Internet via cellular network or WLAN. Both variants have their advantages and disadvantages. In the case of 3G and 4G networks, the mostly higher costs, the volume limitation and the often lower bandwidth and speed have a negative impact. So is WLAN basically the better alternative? After all, many hotspots can now be used free of charge, and after their access points are connected to the Internet by cable, they offer a correspondingly high bandwidth.

Mobile Internet: Is WLAN better than connecting via cellular network?

The question can by no means be answered with a simple “yes”. Despite the plus points, there are also some disadvantages with Wi-Fi: Security is not always guaranteed to the same degree as in the cellular network, and the number of hotspot locations and the range of the radio signals set tight usage limits. You know this from the WLAN router at home, where performance and data throughput are clearly falling behind a wall or two. In contrast to the mobile network, online access can only be used in the immediate vicinity of the hotspots.

Until now, there has been a legal hurdle in the way of the widespread use of public WLAN in Germany: liability for interference. Behind this lies the legal responsibility of the connection and hotspot operator in the event that others download, for example, copyrighted content via the offered line. However, this liability for interference, which only exists under German law, is to be significantly reduced in the future. The question of how far this should go is still controversial between the Federal Council and the government.

Info: How legal are WiFi hotspots in Germany?

On the other hand, the mobile phone providers have a great interest in ensuring that as many people as possible use the Internet on the go, not via their mobile phone networks, but via WLAN. That saves the costly network expansion. For this reason, Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone, together with the acquired company Kabel Deutschland, are expanding their customer communities. The idea behind this is that as many customers as possible share their DSL or cable connection at home with everyone else via WLAN. Ultimately, everyone benefits from it.

Of course, no customer wants to be prosecuted as a disruptor and also does not want to be restricted in their own internet use just because someone is downloading a video on their doorstep.

EnlargeA special router is required to provide WLAN community access. Vodafone provides a specially configured cable Fritzbox 6490 for this purpose.

The WLAN communities of Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone

Both problems are solved by special routers. The devices take care of the load distribution by providing only currently unused bandwidth for external WLAN use. At the same time, the two WLAN networks, the closed own and the open for the others, are completely separated from each other.

In this way, the providing customer is released from liability for interference, because only authenticated users have access to their own hotspot. Any improper use can therefore be traced. At Telekom it is explicitly stated: "With WLAN To Go there is no liability risk for any illegal use by third parties". The advice from Vodafone is similar; in addition, both providers promise the security and integrity of their own data by separating the two networks.

The shared use cannot simply be implemented through a guest WLAN on any router - the prerequisite is a community-capable router. Telekom also offers the Speedport W 724V, which you can either buy for around 150 euros once or rent for just under five euros per month. At Vodafone, the price structure is a bit more complicated because of the different router models: the monthly costs are between two and five euros.

EnlargeThe question of liability for interference through improper joint use is elegantly resolved in WLAN communities: Here, special routers set up two radio networks that are separate from one another.

Telekom advertises with over 20,000 public hotspots and around 900,000 participating WLAN To-Go customers in Germany. Worldwide, more than 17 million hotspots are added through cooperation with the global free Fon network. Vodafone has just under 1000 of its own hotspots, but over a million home spot operators. The numbers sound huge, and a look at the hotspot finder on the Internet also suggests a high density in the cities. But it is also clear that a router placed on the second floor on the back of the building is pretty useless for the general public - not to mention devices that are even further away. The "successful" search via website or app is therefore no guarantee for actual mobile-free web usage.

Liability for interference in the new Telemedia Act

Political wrestling is still going on about the new Telemedia Act, which is intended to promote the expansion of wireless Internet access in public spaces. For this purpose, the operators of the hotspots should no longer be able to be legally prosecuted as so-called disruptors if they violate the law. However, critics such as the industry association Bitkom consider the "simple" securing of WLAN access provided in the drafts as well as the declaration of each individual user not to commit any legal violations as too high hurdles. There was also clear criticism of the current draft law from lawyers and experts at a hearing in the German Bundestag. How it will continue was still open at the time of going to press.

WLAN To Go: Telekom's hotspot community in practice

The basic principle of WLAN To Go at Deutsche Telekom and the Vodafone Homespots is therefore the community idea: The hotspots are only available to those who also activate their own.

In addition to the special routers, a prerequisite at Telekom was or is an IP-based telephone connection, to which the provider will be forced to switch anyway. Otherwise, WLAN To Go is included in all tariff models with a double flat rate for Internet and landline telephony, i.e. with Magenta At Home S, M and L and thus also with a conventional DSL connection with 16 Mbit bandwidth. There are no additional costs for community use, the function can be switched on when the Speedport router is set up for the first time, or alternatively later after logging into the web customer center. From April 19, the use of the hotspot will also be included in newly concluded mobile phone contracts.

EnlargeThe Telekom apps Online Manager and Hotspot Log-in (Windows) help with hotspot searches, account management (left) and when connecting to the wireless network (right).