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Internet: France Had Its Own Years Ago

February 6, 1996

PARIS (AP) _ Years before computer buffs or anybody else ever heard of the Internet, millions of French were already browsing in cyberspace on France’s home-grown on-line network.

The Minitel doesn’t have the worldwide reach, color images or high speed of a personal computer hooked up to the Internet.

But since the early 1980s, it has been a daily tool for ordinary people who use it to send e-mail, read the paper, book a flight, do their banking, order pizza or get instant soccer scores.

``In France, they said before anyone else, `we’re going to need an information highway,‴ said Roger Crocombe, an Englishman and director of marketing of the French computer firm Bull Multimedia.

But paradoxically, Minitel’s huge success is the main reason relatively few French people are turned on by the Internet, a worldwide maze of interconnecting computers.

That means France, with its entrenched, simpler network, risks falling behind as the rest of the world speeds by on the Internet.

From terminals at home, work or the post office, 15 million people regularly use Minitel’s 25,000 commercial services, racking up $1.3 billion in yearly business.

While Internet use is growing in France, only about 200,000 French now use it, compared to 8 million Americans, 2 million British and 1 million Germans. Unlike France, those countries have no pre-existing teletext system.

``They already have this terminal at home that’s easy and accessible,″ said Crocombe, whose job is to sell Internet services in France. ``They ask, `can you do train timetables with the Internet? Can you book a hotel room with the Internet?′ No, not yet. But I can do it with Minitel.″

Another disincentive to switching to the Internet is the $3,000 it costs to buy a PC _ a hefty sum in France that only well-off computer aficionados are willing to pay.

Minitel hardware _ small terminals with a keyboard that hook up to the phone _ is provided free or rented out cheaply by France Telecom, the state telecommunications monopoly.

However, most experts expect cheaper, simpler PC models will soon be marketed. That means French users and services could defect to the Internet, threatening to make the Minitel obsolete.

To prevent that from happening, France Telecom has opted for an Anglo-Saxon strategy: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ’em.

Starting March 15, it is souping up the Minitel by making new models eight times faster and by halving user rates to about 9 cents a minute.

At the same time, it’s trying to boost the presence of French users and French-language services on the Internet, a system largely dominated by English.

It’s creating an e-mail link between the two networks, thus tapping into the Internet’s most popular feature, and cutting the cost of Internet access _ another obstacle to its use in France.

For the price of a local phone call, 5 cents a minute, French users will be able to get on the Internet. Currently, many users pay long-distance calls to reach an Internet service provider.

``The Internet is a chance to bolster the French-speaking world. We shouldn’t fear it,″ said Gerard Merveille, France Telecom’s chief spokesman.

He said the Minitel and the Internet can co-exist.

``There aren’t only computer buffs in France,″ he said. ``Habitual users who aren’t big spenders, like your average Madame Michu out in the backcountry who wants to consult the train schedule to visit her son, for her, the Minitel suffices.″

The Minitel isn’t just an electronic shopping mall. It’s packed with cultural and historical information, like 3615 Creole, which highlights the history of the language of the French West Indies. Movie news and schedules are on 3615 ABCINE.

People use it to find a job, an apartment, a babysitter, a used car and even a date.

The Minitel has some key advantages, things that even Internet advocates say will ensure it survives well into the next century.

Pay-per-view charges and purchases appear on the phone bill. The centralized billing offers security; unlike the Internet, users don’t have to put their credit card number on the network.

``The Minitel built its strategy on the remuneration of its commercial partners,″ said Dominique Patard, founder of the France en Ligne, a French Internet service provider. ``That’s a big problem with the Internet. We don’t know how to bill the user for the time spent browsing.″

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