How Romania got one of the fastest internet services in the world_

10 years later, DIY Romanian kids are today’s network experts

A short story about how Romanian teenagers organized themselves in the early 2000’s, becoming their neighborhoods’ own internet providers. A unique past that made those kids incredible at what they do now, and offered Romania one of the best internet services in the world, or Tinder 10 years before Tinder.

© Wayne Hopkins — Bran, Romania

2016On my way to develop a new mobile-app, I lacked the knowledge on how to build the server’s infrastructure. I quite naïvely asked the guy sitting next to me at one of the Bucharest co-working spaces that day, if ever he had a clue about it.

What I didn’t know back then, is that not only he was “good with computers”, he especially knows his sh*t when it comes to servers. Jackpot. A few days later thanks to his advice, everything was set and I had learned something new.

The most remarkable fact, was how passionate he was about it, aware of every little detail going on from the data-centers to the final user.

That’s the difference of working with many server companies that put you in contact with a random sales-person. Salesmen don’t care if everything doesn’t go perfectly smooth. Whereas here, I know how it feels to be let down by a server, that’s not an option.

Everything is optimized, each and every of my questions has an answer. But how did he get here? It’s no surprise that this world hosts experts, Romania nonetheless, has its very own and unique story.

The real story

Wild cables in Bucharest, a classic here.

Man, that’s slow…

2004Internet was connecting Romanian homes at a maximum speed of 128kbit/second, while most of them were still suffering of the terrible dial-up connections noise, haunting many of us still today. People could not afford the fastest offers, usually reserved to companies. The answer was simple: let’s take one big subscription for the whole bloc and share the costs. Well to be honest, many saw it as an economic opportunity more than a collaborative project between neighbors. After 40 years under the authoritarian regimes of Ceaușescu and his predecessors, who were encouraging spying on your friends to turn them in, Romanians usually don’t trust their neighbors, making collaboration not the most common practice. Which is ironic: they would trust any foreigner way more than the guy next door. Anyway, here the DIY-spirit and the economic motivations became stronger than the culture of distrust.

An infrastructure built by people

And here it all started. Each bloc had its own little entrepreneur. One guy would take the best subscription, install a switch to start distributing the network to other people and finally, go from door to door to find subscribers. For each new subscriber, a UTP-ethernet cable would be plugged from their apartment to the apartment hosting the switch. Most of the time they were using the electric chute of the building to get the cable through, sometimes drill holes, or even use windows in the most sloppy and desperate cases. The subscription owner would have the power over the means of communication: if you didn’t pay, used too much of the bandwidth, or got in a conflict with him, he could unplug your cable anytime.

Tinder before Tinder

People started to connect buildings between them, and even developed a neighborhood intra-net. For some it became a big “LAN-party”, playing multiplayers video-game with inhabitants of the bloc. For others it was a place to chat and meet people from your neighborhood. Friends here told me about their first dates they had with neighbors met on the intra-net’s chat. 10 years ago internet was local, making it a natural Tinder.

Providers can’t fool Romanians

This organic infrastructure providing a way better quality of services than in many european countries back then, providers had to come up with something really good in order to get customers. This is what made Romania’s internet services so competitive in today’s world. As Bernie Sanders’s recent tweet illustrates it perfectly:

A good deal

Big companies decided to get their hands on those neighborhood networks. The providers would go to the one-guy of the bloc to buy his network, using it first hand to acquire their customers. They would later install their own infrastructure. Today quite ironically, precisely while I’m writing this article, my new internet provider is installing a 500mb/s connection in my apartment. The monthly price: $9.5 (39 RON). One of the good reasons for foreign web entrepreneurs to settle their new basecamp here. Oh, and if you’d like to compare your internet connexion to the ones over here, just take the Bernie Sanders Speedtest.

Kids turning into experts

And what about this guy in all that? He was one of the many 16 years old kids building DIY-networking infrastructures in their bloc. They reversed engineered the equipment they were using, to adapt and optimise it to this purpose. They developed a knowledge that they could sell to other blocs looking to optimise their network, or in other words, their business. That is to me one of the most impressive things: while today we can all learn how to do anything over the internet, back then this knowledge was not available. They had to develop it by themselves instead of learning it from others.

This deep knowledge and passion is still with them them 10 years later, and has greatly improved, making them the experts that you can find sitting next to you, like I did that day.

About me: I’m a French developer based in Bucharest, Romania. I’m currently working on Pablo.

Pablo is a phone app for Android and iOS to help you practice and never forget your vocabulary when learning a new language. 
> Follow Pablo on Facebook!
> Looking for an iOS developer