Berlin: startup city, technological backwater

Today I sent a fax. Yes, on 17th August 2015 this is still necessary. Because I had received a letter on paper from the administration of the city of Berlin and my reply had to be sent either on paper or by fax. No e-mail address, or indeed telephone number other than a switchboard, was provided. This is about the standard of my contact with the city administation.

Replacing my British driving license with a German one last year was a similarly backward process, with the new license picked up from a decrepid office off Kochstraße; paint peeled off the walls and grumpy staff sat behind computers that looked like they dated from the 1990s.

Welcome to Berlin in 2015.

The city might be on the verge of overtaking London as the city with the most investor cash flowing into its startup scene, but that entire scene feels somehow at odds with the way the city is governed. Startups are here because people want to live here, and rent and workspace remains relatively cheap. The city administration, by contrast, does not seem to have begun to catch up – nor does it seem to have much intention of actually doing so.

I recently heard a speech by Sebastian Askar (report in German here), the “Open Data Beauftragter” for the city administration. His clear message is that there is little he can do for open data currently, that only 1/3 of his job is dedicated to the topic, and only one of the 12 Berliner Bezirke has a person even responsible for open data. He was equally pessimistic when activisits asked about open data from BVG (public transport), BSR (waste) or BWB (water), and stated that this was just viewed by the city as a purely economic question – if businesses had a clear business case for data, OK, it could be considered, but any other rationale (transparency for example) was considered secondary.

Admittedly more an issue of the private sector than the state, but Berlin home internet and 4G (LTE) internet also remains a major issue. I pay €35 / month for the fastest DSL that money can buy but at 50MBit/sec it’s hardly setting the world alight. Meanwhile 4G data prices remain eye-wateringly high, and while Smartmobil is trying to shake things up a bit, the situation in this field in Berlin feels miles behind Copenhagen where I lived previously – there €12 / month bought me 100Mbit/sec fibre to my building, and €15 / month for 12Gb of mobile data.

So this then is Berlin: startup city, but technological backwater. With elections for the Abgeordnetenhaus on the horizon in autumn 2016 is any party going to make a pitch to change any of this?

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  1. Anonymous

    35 euros per month for unlimited calls+text messages from Germany to Germany and one GB of data within Germany, as stated in the linked article, is insane! Add about 15 euros per month, and a Swedish carrier will replace ‘Germany’ with ‘EEA’ at three places in the previous sentence. Sadly, that service ( is being closed down in mid-September, apparently because of lack of interest from consumers.

  2. Oliver

    Well, the issues with the office in Kochstrasse is unlikely to be changed by anyone anytime soon, for the simple reason that changing it would require money, and money is a rare commodity in the coffers of the city of Berlin….