The curious case of Romanian broadband

By Will Rinehart

Will Rinehart
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Photographers often lament taking pictures in Romania. Taking a clear photo of centuries-old homes and city centers is difficult because of the wires. Everywhere they are strung, breaking up the views.

Part of the reason for these dense nests of wires comes as a result of Romania’s wired broadband networks, which had their genesis in the apartments of Bucharest. Even before the commercial Internet came to the country in the late 1990s, computers were common in the apartment complexes in the capital city. Back then, people would network themselves together into large local area networks to play games, watch movies, and share music. These small networks are now known as reţea de bloc or reţea de cartier, which translates to block networks or neighborhood networks.

Truth be told, these early networks were fueled by rampant pirate content. They sprang up because the government did little to stop neighborhoods from wiring themselves together. Most cities require underground infrastructure, which is expensive to approve, build, and maintain. But the Bucharest neighborhood networks never went through regulatory approval processes. Due to salutary neglect, aerial connections proliferated in Romania, giving rise to the poles with wire nests. As even the International Telecommunications Union noted, “Often, aerial fibre is deployed in areas where [underground] duct-based network roll-out is mandatory.” Even though the law often required underground deployment, neighborhood networks would use poles to wire their community.

Despite the drawbacks, the regulatory leniency also had its benefits. When the commercial Internet started to take hold in the late 1990s, it piggybacked off of these local small Internet service providers to create superfast networks. Simultaneously, Romania lacked a robust telephone market, and so instead of upgrading telephone services through DSL, Romanians jumped directly into fiber through these neighborhood networks.

By the early part of the 2010s, it became clear that Romania had something special going on. A travel blog in 2012 commented,

Romania, and Bucharest specifically, is something of a travel blogger’s digital fantasy come true. Walk down most streets, stop on any corner, whip out your smart phone and more often than not you’ll find a wireless connection. That’s open. No password required; generally because a commodity as common as an Internet connection here isn’t worth stealing.

The early start endures today. As of the latest rankings in August 2020, Romania placed third in the world for fastest wired broadband, just behind dense, urban regions like Singapore and Hong Kong. Even though the country isn’t especially dense or wealthy, Romanian broadband remains a standout.

Of course, this story about broadband excellence has its limits. Importantly, while the cities continue to experience fast wired, rural areas still struggle with broadband. As for mobile broadband, the speeds are hardly of note; the country ranks in the middle of the pack.

Still, Romania’s wired broadband experiment foregrounds a key lesson on the possibilities of network development. The country shows what could happen with reduced restrictions for wired infrastructure. Networks could quickly pop up organically as dictated by current demand. This stands in sharp contrast to places like many U.S. cities where regulatory approval serves as a steep barrier to entry and deployment.

Stephen Milton, who helped to design and build the Gigabit Now service in Sea Ranch, California explained that his company had to obtain permission from 23 separate local, county, and federal granting agencies to get the new project up and running. Broadband provider Sacred Wind out of New Mexico wrote in a filing to the FCC that an application involving one landowner and one authorizing jurisdiction commonly takes 2–4 years to complete, while something more complex, that involves more than one piece of land spanning multiple authorizing jurisdictions, can take anywhere from 4–8 years to complete. Slow response times translate into delays and adoption lags.

In some cities, it is even more dire. On the podcast Reply-All, host PJ Vogt dug into the issue and was shocked to discover how extensive the problem is,

Ray, who is a Verizon spokesperson, still can’t actually can’t get Fios in his own Hell’s Kitchen apartment. And he says that’s because in Manhattan there are neighborhoods where you just can’t run cables on telephone poles. There’s no telephone poles outside and so you might have to string them from apartment building to apartment building. So even if your landlord is fine with having Fios you still might need permission from the landlord of the guy next door. Ray says it can get really complicated.

Fast regulatory approvals aren’t going to solve all of our broadband ills, but, as the contrast with Romania’s laissez-faire approach to communications infrastructure shows, they are a major component of a better infrastructure regime. As cities and states consider reforms of broadband to deal with the pandemic, ensuring that approvals are timely should be at the top of the list.