<!–^~^12|left|^~^–>Started in the early eighties by the government’s own France Telecom, the Minitel has become the standard for France’s online services. Present in more than 6 million homes and countless government agencies, Minitel terminals give access to everyone (but for a fee!) to more than 22,000 databases and services. There are only three free services available on the Minitel: the French White Pages directory, a presentation of France Telecom, and a guide to services offered through the Minitel.

To promote the service, France Telecom gave away (you read correctly) millions of the terminals giving access to the services. For an access fee, anywhere between $.50/minute to $3.00/minute –beware of those 2400 baud terminals!– the French can order food, arrange for train tickets, check out their competition’s financials, rent apartment, sell products, chat, meet, etc, etc…

In fact, thanks to the Minitel, for the last 15 years the French have been able to do online what americans and the rest of the world can now do with the Internet. It is generally thought there to be a stellar example of France’s technological advance.

Unfortunately, owned and operated by a state monopoly jalous of its formidable cash flow (several billions of French francs per year), the Minitel is ill-fitted to compete against the onslaught of “open” (and mostly free!) networks such as the Internet. France Telecom’s sluggish response to the Internet has isolated the Minitel to any direct access from the World Wide Web, and has made it more dificult for the French language to make a mark on the network of networks.

Today, almost all services that started on the Minitel can now be found on the Web. After having been forced to change by market forces, France Telecom finally realized that its “us versus them” policy could eventually prove fatal to the Minitel and to the corporate giant itself. Free ISPs such as Freesbee have appeared in France and the Online population is surging.

For a tour of Minitel services, get out your credit card and head out to Minitel’s offcial site.