Saturday, 17 June 2017 07:30

Minitel, the Open Network Before the Internet

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In 1991, most Americans had not yet heard of the internet. But all of France was online, buying, selling, gaming, and chatting, thanks to a ubiquitous little box that connected to the

telephone. It was called Minitel.

Minitel was a computer terminal. It housed a screen, a keyboard, and a modem—but not a microprocessor. Instead of computing on its own, Minitel connected to remote services via uplink, like a 1960s mainframe or a modern Google Chromebook. Terminals were given out, for free, to every French telephone subscriber by the state (which also ran the phone company).

Minitel was a huge success. With free terminals at home or work, people in France could connect to more than 25,000 online services long before the world wide web had even been invented. Many services of the dotcom-and-app eras had precursors in 1980s France. With a Minitel, one could read the news, engage in multi-player interactive gaming, grocery shop for same-day delivery, submit natural language requests like “reserve theater tickets in Paris,” purchase said tickets using a credit card, remotely control thermostats and other home appliances, manage a bank account, chat, and date.

Minitel was decommissioned in 2012 after 30 years of distinguished service. The terminals still functioned, but they could not handle advances in graphics technology, their modems were outdated, and the French had long since moved on to the internet.

But Minitel’s lessons live on, and with new relevance. In the U.S., the Federal Communications Commission’s Open Internet Order made network neutrality law in 2015. But this year, it has come under attack by both cable internet operators and the current FCC chairman. The American implementation of a network derived from Minitel was done by private industry alone. It failed in part because its usage was not regulated by the government. For this reason, it offers a view from the past on why the FCC’s move today might be misguided. It turns out that regulated networks might offer better market opportunities.

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