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NII Services—Present and Future: Is There Life After Minitel?

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NII Services—Present and Future: Is There Life After Minitel?

The state of Minitel31

The Minitel industry

At the end of 1995, there were about 10,000 different service providers offering 25,000 services through some 4,200 host computers. In 1994, total revenues of service providers amounted F 3,1 billion FF for videotex services and 1,3 billion FF for audiotex services.

According to a February 1993 survey32, 21% of the service providers are independent, specialized companies (the so-called new electronic publishers), for which information provision on Minitel is the sole or main business. They offer 50% of the services available on the Minitel system. The other service providers are: public administrations or public bodies (36%), which use Minitel in order to get a more direct relationship to citizens; private firms (38%), which mainly use Minitel as a way to advertise their products or services; broadcast or publishing companies (5%).

Since the beginnings of Minitel, the videotex industry has experienced an impressive growth as well as a concentration trend apparent in the diminishing number of host computers. The top-twenty host computers host about 20% of the services; they account for 40% of Minitel traffic and one third of service providers revenues. Many of the independent electronic publishers have been taken over by banks and communications enterprises. Only the most innovative which have accumulated technical expertise in a variety of areas (software, graphics, host computers management) have been able to survive on the long term.

Uses, patterns and user profiles

For several years, the interest of users has focused on the same hierarchy of services (see appendix 2). By far, the electronic directory is the service that the greatest number of people with access to Minitel use. Then comes a group of three services: banking (account ion, information on financial investments), transportation (time schedules, plane o plane or train reservations), shopping. Some services have experienced a growing loss of interest from users. These include print media services, messaging services and games.

The traffic per Minitel, while being stable in number of connections (around 15 per month), has declined in time: after reaching a peak in 1987 (93 min per month) it has come down to 67 min per month in 1994 (see appendix 3). This trend can be explained altogether by:

· a learning effect. As they become more familiar with videotex services, users are able to get more quickly the information they need;

· changes in the users' population. The consumption propensity of early users is higher than the one of late adopters;

· the increase of services rates which occurred after 1987.

· a mounting lack of interest for Minitel services, especially among people equipped with PCs. In order to stop this trend, France Télécom has open new access gateways to Minitel, allowing high speed transmission (up to 14,4 kbit/s) and the provision of enhanced services33.

Minitel users can be divided into five groups:

· utilitarian users regularly turn to three or four services, such as banking or shopping services and train schedule information. The value for money of services is an essential consideration to them. They keep their use to a minimum. However, they are faithful consumers.

· domestic users use a multiplicity of services which combine utility and entertainment. These users have many out-of-home activities, like those of the former group, but compared to them, they are better educated and have higher incomes.

· addicted users use a wide range of services with a special focus on general or professional data bases, high value-added services. They also use entertainment services and messaging services. They are the heaviest users of Minitel, which they mainly access from their workplace.

· professional users center their activity on specific professional services (in house services, E-mail, professional data bases). These users are heavy users of Minitel both in terms of frequency and volume. They mainly use Minitel from their workplace. They tend to be men and well-off. They are mostly farmers, industrialists, shopkeepers.

· players use Minitel regularly (often daily), for more than an hour at a time with a focus on communication and games. This behavior can be especially observed during the early period of familiarization with Minitel.

The low penetration of the Internet and other on-line services

Apart from Minitel, other on-line services are underdeveloped in France. Despite a huge press coverage, the Internet is at best accessed by 200,000 individuals (half of them being academics). As for commercial on-line services, such as Compuserve, Delphi, AOL, they represent less than 30,000 subscribers in France (about 250,000 in Europe). These figures do not necessarily indicate that French people are content with Minitel, but reflect various commercial and technical obstacles to access other on-line services.

While academics are able to access the Internet by a specialized network (REseau NAtional de TElécommunication pour la Recherche, RENATER, which is subsidized by the government), the access of general public to on-line services depend on commercial access providers. Half a dozen of such providers now exist in France. Access rates, while having steadily declined over the last two years, remain high: typically 100 FF/ month with a few hours of free usage to which must be added the cost of communication to reach the access provider host-computer and the subscription to commercial services. This situation is likely to change with the commitment of France Télécom to provide national access to the Internet for the cost of a local communication.

More generally, the development of on-line services in France and in Europe is hampered by several problems. Firstly, the number of PCs equipped with modems is still low (see table 7 ). This is a left-over of the monopoly period when modems used to fall under public operator's rule and were considered as part of their network34. The base of potential users is therefore narrow which makes it difficult to recoup investments. Secondly, the diversity of languages and the fragmentation of markets in Europe are serious obstacles to the launch of genuine European services. Thirdly, European on-line services must meet the European Commission 's requirement that they do not represent any obstacle to competition. On this ground, the Commission has recently open an investigation concerning the creation and operation of the Luxembourg-based Europe Online service35.

[Insert Table 7 here.]

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