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Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt - the Barriers to Router Freedom in Germany

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Consider this hypothetical scenario: you moved to a new apartment. Apart from all the stress of packing, transporting, and unpacking all your stuff at your new home, you also had to deal with getting utilities connected. The electric company turned out to be difficult to deal with: they said you had to change your TV set, toaster, refrigerator and most of your lamps.

They said that they couldn't guarantee you would have electricity at all unless you bought a whole new set of appliances from them. You don't understand: your stuff worked perfectly fine in your old place.

The water company was not much better. They told you that your old washing machine was "not supported" and that you would even have to change your toothbrush or you risked polluting the water network of the whole city for some unexplained reason. We are guessing you would no doubt find this scenario very hard to believe. We do not blame you: it is silly beyond the believable.

But now consider this very real situation:

Max and Lucas moved

Not together, but yet more or less simultaneously. We (my colleague Lucas and I, Max) moved to new flats in our respective cities in Germany and decided we wanted to connect to the Internet through our own routers. Since August 2016, this has been allowed thanks to a new law which the FSFE has advocated for since 2013. According to the law, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can offer their own technical equipment, but they must not force it upon you. In order to allow for free choice of modems and routers, ISPs have to provide the necessary information for the installation and usage of communication equipment and services without the client having to ask for it and for no charge.

But we soon realised that our ISPs, Unitymedia and Vodafone, were not willing go through this process. This is a story of soft and hard barriers, and how to overcome them individually and as a community. It is important not to ignore the hurdles ISPs put in our way. Router Freedom offers too many advantages, including those of independence, security, privacy and control of our technology, to be ignored.

Four benefits of Router Freedom
Some of the various benefits of Router Freedom

Soft barriers

In November 2019, Lucas experienced a so-called soft barrier courtesy of Vodafone, his ISP. When he moved to a new flat, he requested a DSL connection. After waiting for a entire month for the connection, the ISP's customer service tried to convince Lucas not to use his own router, stating several times that a private router is more expensive, hard to install, not secure and could cause damage to the public network. Besides, something even more concerning was that they threatened Lucas by saying that in case he insisted having a private router, they would not be able to provide technical support. All that said, at least they provided with no delay the necessary login information.

This behavior is called a "soft barrier" because, although Vodafone did not prevent Lucas by contractual means to use his private router or deny vital information for the router configuration (login data), Vodaphone's customer service subtly tried to convince Lucas to not use his own router with the customary economic and commercial arguments that ISPs usually push onto their customers. In most of the cases, it is sufficient to scare people away from Router Freedom.

Hard barriers

In December of the same year, I moved to a new city and chose a business cable Internet connection offered by Unitymedia (meanwhile largely incorporated by Vodafone). After several calls, a technician finally visited my new home and successfully installed the ISP's default modem. Of course, I immediately noted that I wanted to use my own router. The technician told me that this was not allowed.

In a call with the service hotline, after defending some of the already mentioned soft barriers, I learnt that one of the features I had ordered, a static IPv4 address, is not available when using an own router, apparently because the address could only be mapped to their devices – even though my own router was the exact same model.

Although I am now able to use my own router (after a long series of hotline calls and waiting), I still cannot use an essential feature I ordered. This is a "hard barrier" because customers who want to exercise their freedom of choice are treated worse. At least I can enjoy the freedom of using equipment which I own and which I can control, but I will report this misconduct by my ISP to the national Federal Network Agency and a consumer protection organisation (see below).

A manikin working on a router
Picture by Konrad Twardowski, licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.0

How to deal with barriers?

Everyone should be able to choose their own modem or router. We call this Router Freedom and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) must not restrict it. In Europe, and specifically in Germany, this freedom is assured by several directives and laws. It is ironic that we, the two coordinators of the FSFE's Router Freedom campaign, experienced first hand how German ISPs are still reluctant to allow people use their own devices.

In case you are in Europe and your ISP is trying to convince you to use their router, here is a small guide of how to proceed:

  1. If they tell you that you are not allowed to use your router, you can report the fact to the National Regulatory Agency or the Consumer Protection Authority of your region. There may also be state-independent organisations and platforms to report issues, e.g. Marktwächter in Germany. Please share your experience in the FSFE's forum to help us and others.
  2. If you can use your router, but the ISP refuses to provide the login data for the public network, this is also a case for the National Regulatory Agency or Consumer Protection Authority. Please follow the same procedure explained above.
  3. If you are allowed to use your router, but the ISP refuses to provide technical support, you must know that every ISP is obliged by contract to provide technical support in relation to your access to the Internet. Although they can refuse to support your private router, all other issues concerning the connection must be handled by them; and, according to our experience, most issues with routers can be solved with a quick search on the Internet.

How many people are affected by Router Freedom barriers?

Germany was one of the first European countries to implement a Router Freedom law, following the efforts of the FSFE's campaign for Router Freedom. The number of people using their own routers has been growing at a slow but steady pace. According to latest reports, Vodafone, the second largest ISP in Germany, has 3,5% of their cable customers using their own routers. For Unitymedia, a large cable ISP bought by Vodafone, the number is 2%.

Router Freedom statistics for Vodafone in Germany
Router Freedom and Vodafone Germany

Complaints about violations against art. 3(1) of the Net Neutrality Regulation, which also protects Router Freedom, are growing faster. The German National Regulatory Agency, the authority responsible for the monitoring of the net neutrality rules in the country, has registered this to be an "increasingly important isue" for the report period of 2018-2019 (p. 11), although they consider their options to intervene in such cases to be limited.

The increasing tendency gives us motivation to keep up raising the flag for Router Freedom. Your support makes the difference for the awareness spreading about this simple but powerful idea: free your router!

Take back your rights!

Router Freedom concerns all of us. Check out our wiki page where you can find all necessary information to get active against the disruption of Router Freedom and to raise awareness among your community and political representatives. Share your experience in the FSFE's forum so we can stand together for Router Freedom!

Long-term political and public action for Router Freedom requires resources. Please consider joining the FSFE as a supporter and help us continue this and other activities.

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