Minitel, the French Online Pioneer, Provides Lessons for Us All

by Ava L. Parker on August 30, 2011

For three decades, starting long before Internet access was common, people in France have been doing business, checking the phone directory, and reaching out for information through their beloved Minitel.

Not for long. The Minitel, with its slow modem connection and small, primitive screen and keyboard, is making its last circuit through the calendar. Next June, France Télécom will unplug the service, rendering millions of the iconic terminals junk — or items for collectors, depending on your point of view.

The success of Minitel offers some lessons for advocates of universal broadband access here in the United States.

The electronic service was conceived as a means of cutting down on the use of paper and to give French citizens access to information.

Less paper? Perhaps, but access, certainly
Whether it reached the first goal is debatable, but it certainly gave access to information online. More importantly for us now, it did so by providing a connection that was cheap, reliable, and safe.

The key to Minitel’s broad acceptance and long life lies in France Télécom’s decision to give the terminals away — no charge. Despite that expense, Minitel proved a moneymaker, as the phone company charged for each connection. For most users, this was easily affordable.

The Minitel terminals were hardly handsome devices, even from the start, and age did not add to their glory. But they were robust — all but indestructible — and the modem connections were reliable.

Using the Minitel to look up information, to make airline reservations, or even to engage in naughty messageries roses was a simple task, and the system was trustworthy. Even today, Minitel transactions are considered more secure than those via the Web.

So, why not use the Minitel? Millions of French people have done so.

France Télécom continues to generate revenue off the service — $43.1 million last year — but nothing like the $1 billion or more in years past, according to the Wall Street Journal. Clearly, the time has come to bid adieu to a dialup device that shows no pictures, only text and basic graphics, in monochrome.

Simple, cheap, secure
Yet a million or so French families still have the devices and continue to use them. What does that tell us? Here are the key lessons from Minitel’s long history:

  • Keep it simple. Did people need to take classes to operate a Minitel? Not at all.
  • Make it affordable. Free terminals are what drove Minitel’s quick adoption, and low-cost metered service kept the chunky terminals in use for decades.
  • Build in security. The secure network allowed the French to dial up and make transactions without concern. But we worry about identity theft — a concern that keeps many Americans offline.

We have an active campaign, led by One Economy and the Broadband Opportunity Coalition, to bring broadband Internet access to every American household. I hope these efforts meet with as much success, and have as lasting an impact, as did the humble Minitel.

  • Ava L. Parker of Jacksonville, Florida, is the president of Linking Solutions Inc., a business-development and community-outreach firm, and a partner in the law firm of Lawrence & Parker, PA., and the voice of The AvaView, a blog on digital action and consumer protection.

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  • John_Q_Public

    A fascinating post with lots of parallels to what’s going on in the US. Thanks for writing about this!

  • S. Witter

    Access to information truly is a 21st century civil rights issue… Before reading this article, I had never made the connection between what the Minitel has offered the French over the few decades and what nonadopters in America need at this time in order to connect to broadband, and thus information. While I feel strongly that innovation is important, it is equally important to produce devices that are extremely user-friendly, cost-efficient, and secure. But on the race to be the “best” and develop the most ground-breaking technologies, who is going to step back and do this? That is the real question. Hopefully someone… and soon.

  • Mike

    We have these devices. They’re called smartphones, and they’re getting cheaper and cheaper. We even see homeless guys with cell phones. Companies like MetroPCS, Cricket, etc., offer affordable plans to the people that need them. And I see this happening with the tablet market, too. Being relatively new, they’re still expensive, but competition and economies of scale will drive the prices for these down, too. We’re still behind and we didn’t have the Minitel, but we are catching up…slowly.

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