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Pioneering Minitel in slow decline

A decade before the internet, millions of French were logging on to check the weather, buy train tickets and chat online

By Oliver Rowland

THE MINITEL, which gave dial-up internet-style services to France a decade before the world wide web, will be with us for a while longer.

Its most-used service, 3611 directory enquiries - expected to have been axed this month - has had a stay of execution because it is fairing better against the internet than bosses predicted.

According to the head of PagesJaunes, which runs 3611, with a million monthly connections (compared to six million at its peak) it is too popular to axe, even though use is dropping by about 30% a year.

It had been thought use could be as low as 200,000 connections by now.

Michel Datchary added Minitel users, who tend to be older people, are “quite faithful” and “are not getting onto the internet and perhaps never will.”

The Minitel was launched in 1982 as a low-resolution, black and white, mainly text-based service, used from terminals that looked like a rather primitive home computer, with a screen and keyboard combined, hooked up to a phoneline.

At the end of the 1990s about nine million of the brown or grey terminals were to be found in French homes and businesses and you could consult them in post offices.

It generated a billion euros of revenue at its peak but this has dropped to about 100 million. It is thought there are now about 1.5 million working terminals.

The directory enquiry service (the first online version in the world) was key from the beginning - the aim was to reduce the number of paper directories distributed.


A system was set up which allowed time on the Minitel to be added to the phone bill and firms were invited to set up extra services. At first some terminals were distributed free, before a system of hire or purchase was organised.

Using the Minitel involves logging in with a number (all starting with “36”) followed by a letter code.

Apart from checking phone numbers, looking for accommodation or buying train tickets, messageries conviviales - an early version of internet chat - became popular, with its most notorious use being the “Minitel rose.”

The latter (which has now almost disappeared) allowed people to log on to sexy chat services with names like 3615 VAZI (“do it”), 3615 ENCORE (“again") or 3615 QUIENVEUT (“who wants some?”), which would be widely advertised, including on posters.

France Télécom spokeswoman Héloïse Rothenbuhler said it was now possible to access the Minitel via your PC rather than one of the consoles, of which just three models are now still available, dating from 1985, 1994 and 1997. There are about 1.8 million computers with Minitel software installed.

Today there are just 3,700 Minitel services remaining, compared to 23,000 in its heyday and the technology has been deserted by giants like the SNCF. Ms Rothenbuhler added: “There are services like 3617 INFOGREFFE and 3615 VERIF to get information on companies, which are appreciated by professionals.

“There are services that newspaper kiosk holders or people who run bar-tabacs can use to stock up again. It is also used a lot in the freight business.”

In fact 40% of the services still in use are for (mainly small) businesses. The Minitel was a revolution for these when it was set up, and still proves dependable.

Its advantages include the fact it is a closed system based on France Télécom’s phone network and is free from viruses. It is more confidential than the internet as traces of your activities cannot be found on search engines. It is quick and easy to turn on and believed to be hacker-proof.

Ms Rothenbuhler added: “If you’ve got one at home and you are used to the way it works, it still suits some people better than the internet.

“However it is true there are other ways of getting information - like directory enquiries phone numbers and websites - it depends on the use you want to make of it.”

Among the services that are still popular with users are checking bank accounts, stock exchange information and betting on horses.

With Minitel connections down from nearly eight billion in 1998 to 120 million, the end of the Minitel is predicted, though France Télécom says it will not be before 2012.

Die-hard users have at least until then to prepare themselves for the internet age.

Photo:Marcin Wichary

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