Vive Le Minitel

The French take pride in doing things a little differently. They eat cheese at the end of a meal. They celebrate a prison burning as their national holiday. They drive Renaults. So it should be no surprise they have an alternative to the Internet, Minitel, and a different method of generating revenue from this on-line service than banner advertising.

Brought to French households as early as 1983, Minitel is the name for the 6.3 million dumb computer terminals from which citizens can access on-line services. Thanks to Minitel, the French have been engaging in cybersex, banking on-line and accessing electronic phone directories long before the rest of the world logged on to the Web.

Bruno Chaintron, director of Minitel for France Telecom, the carrier that developed the system, says, “Minitel is a business model. One that made it possible to create an industry of on-line content providers in France that comprises 18,000 different on-line services that are all profitable.”

France Telecom charges users for the time they spend on-line. Prices vary by service, and charges appear on a customer’s phone bill. In 1999, of the 5 billion francs that France Telecom generated from Minitel, 3 billion went to content providers. With the rest, the company covered costs and made its profits.