No cell reception: Why do we often have such a poor network in Germany?

If you are on the move with your cell phone in Germany, you will quickly notice: Mobile Internet is much faster and better in other European countries. What’s more, there are dead spots in the countryside, on the highway, or on the train. Why is that? Why does Germany often have such a poor network? How can it be that a successful industrial nation is apparently only mediocre when it comes to network expansion? A search for clues.

Important questions about cell phone dead spots

How does a mobile network work?

A mobile network consists of several components that work together to establish voice and data connections between mobile devices such as smartphones or tablets and other networks such as the fixed network or the Internet. The main components are:
1.the cellular base stations (also called radio masts or antennas) that transmit and receive the signal. They are usually installed on roofs, towers or masts and cover a specific area called a cell.
2.the mobile switching centers (also called switches or nodes), which control the connections between the base stations and other networks. They are usually located in buildings and connected by fiber-optic cables or microwave radio links.
3. the mobile devices (also called cell phones or smartphones) that receive and transmit the signal from the base stations. They have a SIM card that identifies them and gives them access to the chosen mobile operator.

How is a connection established?

To establish a connection, the mobile device sends a request to the nearest base station, which forwards it to the responsible switching center. The exchange then searches for the destination of the connection, whether it is another mobile device, a landline or an Internet address. When the destination is found, the connection is established and the call or data transmission can begin.

What are the different types of mobile communications spectrum?

Spectrum is the totality of all electromagnetic waves propagating in different frequency ranges. The spectrum is limited and is claimed by various users such as broadcasting, satellites or the military. Certain frequency bands are available for mobile communications, which are auctioned and licensed by the Federal Network Agency. The frequency bands for mobile communications can be roughly divided into three categories: Low band (below 1 GHz), mid band (1-6 GHz) and high band (above 6 GHz). Each band has its advantages and disadvantages in terms of range, capacity and speed.

The low band has a long range and can penetrate buildings well, but it has low capacity and speed. It is mainly used for basic coverage of 2G, 3G and 4G services. The medium band has a medium range and can partially penetrate buildings, but it has a higher capacity and speed than the low band. It is mainly used for the rollout of 4G and 5G services. The high band has a low range and can barely penetrate buildings, but it has a very high capacity and speed. It is mainly used for the roll-out of 5G services in densely populated areas.

How does the spectrum affect mobile communications reception?

The higher the frequency of the spectrum, the shorter the wavelength and the more data can be transmitted. This means that the high band enables a higher data rate than the low band. However, the attenuation of the waves also increases as the frequency increases. This means that the high band has a shorter range than the low band. To ensure good mobile communications reception, network operators must therefore offer an optimum mix of different frequency bands. In doing so, they must also take into account user demand for different services. For example, voice calls require less bandwidth than video streaming.

What is a dead spot?

A dead spot is a location where there is no or only a very poor radio connection between a transmitter and a receiver. This can happen, for example, if the transmitter or receiver is outside the range of a transmission system or if obstacles such as tunnels, high-rise buildings or mountains shadow or reflect the radio waves. A dead spot can cause telephone calls to be interrupted or data transmissions to be very slow or not work at all.

Why is cell phone reception on the train often not so good?

Cell phone reception on the train depends on several factors. On the one hand, network coverage along the rail route plays a role. This is not yet the case throughout Germany, and there are still many white spots, especially in rural areas or at border crossings. Secondly, it depends on how well the trains are equipped with signal amplifiers that make the mobile signal available inside the train. These are mainly available in areas marked with a cell phone symbol, but are not evenly distributed in all trains and carriages. In addition, there may be interference from multipath reception if the train is moving quickly and receiving or reflecting the radio signals from different transmitters. There are also trains that use special windows that can interfere with cell phone reception.

Why are there far fewer dead spots in Switzerland than in Germany?

Switzerland has much better network coverage than Germany, both in the fixed network and in mobile communications. This is partly because Switzerland is a smaller and more densely populated country, which makes network expansion easier. On the other hand, Switzerland has imposed stricter requirements on network operators, who must meet high quality standards. For example, all rail lines must be supplied with at least 4G and all trains must be equipped with signal amplifiers.

What requirements does the Federal Network Agency set for network expansion in Germany?

The Federal Network Agency is the regulatory authority for the telecommunications market in Germany. It allocates the frequencies for mobile communications and sets the requirements for network operators. For example, they must achieve a certain network coverage, which varies depending on the frequency band and area. For example, at least 98 percent of households and 97 percent of the area must be covered with at least 50 Mbit/s by the end of 2022. In addition, all highways and federal roads as well as all railroads must be supplied with at least 100 Mbit/s.

Network operators in Germany have repeatedly failed to meet the requirements. What sanctions are available?

If network operators fail to meet the requirements of the Federal Network Agency, they can be fined or subjected to other sanctions. So far, however, the authority has mostly shied away from imposing fines.