With 600,000 users, France already boasts the largest installed videotex base in the world, and the government plans to connect 1.5 million homes and businesses to the network by year's end. The Poste, T'el'ephone et T'el'egraphe (PTT) group is replacing traditional paper telephone books with small computer terminals linked by phone connections to a central French information service. Phone subscribers possessing a terminal can consult electronic white and yellow pages, check a calendar of coming cultural events, or ask for legal or tax information, all free of charge.
The terminal itself -- dubbed the minitel -- was developed by a consortium of French electronics companies, including Matra and French General Electric. It was designed specifically for the French Telecommunications Ministry's plan to ``plug in'' the majority of France's population to the computer revolution. The minitel costs only about $150 to produce, fits on a bookshelf, and is extremely simple to operate.
The terminal is distributed free to customers in major urban centers like Paris, Marseille, Lyons, and Strasbourg. Customers in rural areas not yet linked to Transpac, the PTT's computerized teleprocessing network, can receive a minitel with electronic phone book for a fee of $8 a month. Eventually, when the network covers all of France, the monthly fee for rural areas will be dropped.
But the potential application of the minitel goes far beyond those services included in the basic electronic phone book. The terminals already installed throughout France can access hundreds of other services (which the user pays for). One can book an airline reservation, send or receive electronic mail, play video games, and consult newspaper files and technical information banks.
Via the minitel, retail stores can select and order goods directly from wholesalers. Housewives can even shop on the video screen and have groceries delivered to the doorstep.
``The electronic phone book is the beginning,'' says Paul Carenco, general director for PTT's videotex operations in the Paris area. ``By offering this for free we get the minitel into the home and allow people to recover from their initial anxiety of operating a computer terminal. Later, when they see how easy and useful it is, they start to use the more complex paying services.''
The French government began considering the idea of establishing such a nationwide teleprocessing network back in the late 1970s, under President Val'ery Giscard d'Estaing. When President Franois Mitterrand replaced him in 1981, he grew enthusiastic over the idea. An experimental videotex system was established among 2,500 homes and offices in the Paris suburb of Velizy later that year. The results were encouraging and the present system was begun in October 1982.
By the end of this year there should be 1.5 million minitel terminals, and by the end of 1986, 3 million.
At present, nearly a third of the terminals are rented at a monthly rate, either because additional ones are desired -- only one per residence comes free -- or because the user is in a rural area. The use of pay services is also on the rise.
``When people are paying for something,'' Mr. Carenco declares, ``then you know they think it has value.''
French government officials shy away from estimating total expenditures on the system to date, but the bill for the 3 million terminals to be installed by the end of '86 alone comes to nearly half a billion dollars. Added to that is the cost of research and development, which teleprocessing analysts put at anywhere between several hundred million and $1 billion. Moreover, as PTT expands its Transpac network, it must pay more for additional computers and processing equipment at regional ``nerve'' centers.
There is also concern that the use of minitel will decline as its novelty wears off. Another concern is that many people are using many of the more expensive services only while at work, when they can sneak computer time for their personal business on one of the office terminals.
Eric Monchy, teleprocessing expert and writer for Videotex, a large-circulation French magazine specializing in consumer applications of new communications technologies, notes that ``things like electronic games, videotex news, and some of the banking services are so expensive that I am sure people are only really using them at work where they do not have to pay for them. Many of these are going to disappear when better controls are developed.''
That may be very soon. The French Commission Nationale Informatique et Libert'es, a government judiciary branch concerned with computer law, recently decided that businesses may install special counters on minitel phone lines to monitor usage and to try to stop the ``theft'' of computer time.
``Once these monitors are installed, usage is likely to drop by as much as a third,'' Mr. Monchy contends. ``Right now, businesses are still financing services really intended for home use. Half of the services meant for the general public may die off.''
PTT, of course, profits from increased phone traffic. Except for the basic electronic phone book services, users may pay for the time they use their minitel, and this fee is added to their phone bill. An additional charge may be due to the company providing the specific videotex service.
Just where the break-even point lies is open to question. In an effort to enhance profitability, PTT is trying to sell its new ideas and products on foreign markets. So far it has met with considerable success.
In late '84, PTT reached a multimillion-dollar licensing agreement with Honeywell, which bought the right to distribute French hardware and software office systems in the United States. PTT has also sold videotex systems to the national telecommunication services of Norway, New Zealand, and Kuwait.
``Foreign sales are always encouraging,'' says Georges Nahon, director of Intelmatique, a PTT affiliate handling foreign promotions. ``But even more important is the incredible development of the domestic French market for the use of videotex.''