German surfers to down mice for Internet strike

Preparations are underway for Germany's first Internet strike in protest over communications giant Deutsche Telekom's access charges.

Several hundred German online users and Web sites (including popular magazines "Der Spiegel" and "Stern") plan to replace their regular sites with black strike pages or to go off-line for the November 1 stike. "We estimate that between 75 percent and 93 percent of all private users will take part," said strike-initiator Thomas von Treichel, 20, of a Frankfurt-based group called DarkBreed.

The chief demand of the boycott organizers: Deutsche Telekom must lower Internet access charges by DM 1.00 (approximately $0.60 or £0.35) per hour, with a maximum charge of DM 100 ($60 or £35) per month. While long-distance markets are open in Germany, Deutsche Telekom still holds a monopoly on local calls, and thus over online access.

Serico Internet Services, a Berlin-based company, has agreed to represent DarkBreed's wishes in negotiations with Telekom after November 1 -- assuming that Telekom will then be ready to lower call-in charges. For the meantime, Serico is organising a "Strike Party" for Sunday afternoon in Berlin, taking place in an outdoor tent called the "Tempodrom." Von Treichel clarified DarkBreed's wishes: "What we want is a fair adjustment to the price of Internet connections, reflective of similar adjustments for business customers and long-distance callers which have taken place since the freeing up of the telecommunications market. We thereby hope to make affordable Internet access possible for the general public, and especially for students."

Von Treichel estimates that Telekom will lose up to DM 10.2 million ($6.2 mn or £3.6 mn) in revenues as a result of the 24-hour strike. Telekom considers the strike uncalled for. "There is no basis for a strike in Germany," Telekom spokesman Joerg Lammers told ZDNet. "Our prices are in line with the market and we also offer some very, very good plans for Internet users, like our City-Plus." Lammers added that Telekom offers cheaper prices than users would get in England, Holland, or Belgium. He also noted how "with the cheap prices in the US, network improvement is falling by the wayside. More and more, people are receiving a busy signal." Lammers said that starting November 1, customers of T-Online (the largest German online service and a Telekom subsidiary) will also receive two free hours per month and asserted that T-Online would not participate in Sunday's strike.

CompuServe symapthized with strike organizers but refused to participate. "We have a lot of understanding for the motivation behind this strike," said Compuserve spokesman Stephan Naundorf. "However, I don't believe that it will really help things." Naundorf confirmed that CompuServe will not participate in the strike. "We are for the most part independent of Telekom and use cables from other providers." Asked whether Telekom's pricing is too high, Naundorf spoke carefully. "The deregulation process ought to be continued. That will have its own effect on prices." I

In the case that Telekom does not meet boycotters' demands, the Internet strike will continue. "We did a poll among users, and 75% are in favour of repeating the strike on all coming Sundays," von Treichel said. At the same time, he admitted surprise at the success of his call for a strike. "We never counted on such support. The media is bombarding us with so many inquiries that the two of us here simply cannot answer everyone in time." Von Treichel is planning a press conference at Sunday's Strike Party in Berlin where he will assess the strike's success. The Internet Strike was initiated by the group DarkBreed, based in Karben (near Frankfurt) and comprising mostly younger Internet users. For 24 hours beginning at midnight November 1 no one is to dial in to the Web, unless it is urgent. All private surfing is to be avoided.

A precedent for the strike was a successful boycott in September by approximately 1.7 million Web surfers in Spain, which led to a near 60 percent reduction in Internet access charges. An hour of surfing in Spain went down from DM 3.20 ($1.90 or £1.12) to less than DM 2.00 ($1.20 or £0.71). Currently an hour of surfing in Germany costs approximately DM 5.00 ($3.00 or £1.78) during the day on weekdays. Between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. the cost is a little more than DM 2.00 (US $1.20 or £0.71).

Whether or not the Internet Strike is a success, being online in Germany looks to become cheaper relatively soon. Citing sources in the business community, the news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur reports that Telekom will introduce lower long distance fees next year and will offer Internet users cheaper online access. For Web surfers this should mean slightly higher basic monthly rates, coupled with significantly more affordable charges for going online.