Minitel -- the resistible rise of French Videotex

Ewan Sutherland


A major concern in telecommunications, as in areas such as agriculture and aviation, is that governments should not distort markets. Consequently, it is important to know whether and when it is appropriate for governments to intervene and in particular to make investments in infrastructure. Minitel is an example of such an infrastructural investment.

Although successful in many senses, the Minitel case is ambiguous. Clearly, Minitel could not have occurred without governmental action. Equally, the status quo of the early 1990s was artificial and is now being undermined both by the forces of the market and technological change.

Technological obsolescence is always a danger and has now hit Minitel. To sustain the success, a transition must be made to a new generation of technology. However, changes in the boundaries of the market and the changes in the rules of the competitive game have made this impossible on the same terms as before. These changes could not reasonably have been foreseen when Minitel was launched. Minitel, if successful, should have been superceded by an ISDN-based service, presumably a form of photo-videotex. Now it faces being absorbed into Internet access, a market dominated by companies based in the United States of America. In the longer term it will have to adjust to Video-on-Demand services.

As we move into what is termed the 'information economy' services such as Minitel clearly deserve attention, they indicate some of the things we can expect. Innovation in the provision of services will be a key to the development of value added services; which represent an important sector of the information economy.

Clearly providers of value-added services in France have learned many valuable lessons. The question is whether they will attempt and succeed in transferring these to the broader European market. It will not be so easy since the framework of the kiosk tariffs, networks and terminals will not be there. However, the financial rewards will be much greater. The evidence to date is that little development has taken place.

What seems to have been learned is that it is necessary to have mechanisms in place to ensure a functioning market. Although arguably artificial, the Minitel system has shown how such a market can operate. The services which consumers seem to want are diverse, but are certainly not the supply the dreary information. Instead they want to be able to purchase goods, check their bank balances, and identify products and services. Importantly, they want to play games and to communicate with one another. Minitel is much more like an extension of the telephone than a combination of the telephone and television.

The table shows the similarities, but mainly the differences between French and British adoption of videotex.

TABLE Comparison of French and British videotex

United KingdomFrance
Home and office marketDomestic market
Adaptor for televisionDedicated terminal
High quality picture Medium quality picture
Low penetration rate High penetration rate
Rapid achievement of critical mass
Rivalry between France Télécom and TdF
Centralised service Decentralised service
Hierarchical menu Flat menu structure
Diversity of tariffs Kiosk tariffs
Pre-subscription Pay as you view
Recover investment Pay for costs

Note: TdF is Télévision de France.

[ Introduction | Invention | Marketing | French telecommunications | France Télécom | French videotex | Messagerie Conviviale | Unnatural market | Cour des Comptes | Quickening pace of technology and politics | Conclusion | Bibliography | Chronology | Web links ]
Copyright Ewan Sutherland, 1995.

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