E-mail For Everyone in France?

Village of Marly
The main street in Marly-le-Roi's old village..

Marly-le-Roi Points Way - Via Minitel

Marly-le-Roi:- Friday, 24. October 1997:- The big event is not taking place in the Salle de Fêtes in the cellar of the city hall. It is taking place in the Salle de l'Horloge; across the way, in the park of the old city hall, which also has the office where we pay our taxes.

Some people are outside smoking at the top of the stairs under the clock when I arrive a half-hour late. As I have been warned, the long 'salle' is jammed to the rafters, but the proceedings have not yet started.

Some ten years ago, the present mayor of Marly-le-Roi, François-Henri Le Virieu, decided to take advantage of France Sisley litho Télécom's Minitel service, and he had the town set up with its own Minitel server - which put the local administration and local services online. At the time the telephone operator 'lent' a simple Minitel terminal to anybody who asked for one and had a phone line.

After the king stopped coming to Marly, the impressionists came. Some stayed.

Today's big event, big news, is the inauguration of 1,000 free e-mail accounts for residents of Marly-le-Roi. The other half of this big news, is that it is the Poste - the postal service - and not France Télécom - the telephone operator - which is responsible for the e-mail server.

The third part of today's 'news' is that today is 'Netd@y' - which is supposed to be to the Internet what the 'Heritage Days' are to the nation's patrimony. Last week I wrote that 'Netd@y(s)' are an initiative of the European Union, but this week, I find no mention or reference to it anywhere.

Back in the salle, the vice-mayor, Bernard Longhi, gives a ten minute explanation of 'Marly-Cyber-le-Roi' - andHotel de Ville, Marly what it may mean to the residents of this small town, located to the west of Paris between Saint-Germain-en-Laye and Versailles.

This is Marly's new city hall, or Hôtel de Ville.

When Mr. Longhi is finished, he invites someone to open the first e-mail account. A man from the Poste explains how to do this by using a Minitel terminal, and the rush to the three available Minitels begins.

The problem with Minitel, is that you can't 'rush' it. So, at the end of 30 minutes, the Salle de l'Horloge has only half as many people, some of whom may be waiting to sign up.

The rest are looking at the INRIA's computers equipped with mini video cameras. The INRIA is a government think tank, which thinks about computers, automation and telecommunications. Since one of the INRIA's research sites is just down the road in Rocquencourt, it is handy for them to use Marly as a 'test' case.

The INRIA is here tonight to promote using the Internet to make phone calls, with a bit of software called 'Jingle.' (This software can be freely downloaded from the URL below; but don't be surprised to find it at a Bull Web site. Bull has a place between Marly and Rocquencourt. We are all very cozy out in these sticks.)

The Poste calls this service 'télépost', and apparently has done so since the beginning of July. What is happening in Marly for today's event, is the Poste is waiving its 199 franc fee for opening an e-mail account. This 'e-mail by Minitel' service is not restricted to Marly; it is available throughout France.

Basically, it allows any telephone subscriber with a Minitel to send and receive e-mail without having a computer or a modem. (The Minitel box contains a slow modem.)

The user fills out a form to request an e-mail address, such as "popcorn.willy@laposte.fr" and pays 198.99 francs for this. The monthly charge is 60.30 francs for an account, plus France Télécom's usual line local-call charges.

If you wish to receive your incoming e-mail on paper, the Poste charges 96 centimes for the first page to be brought by postman, or 1.80 francs to send it by fax. You can even opt for a vocal-server to read your e-mail to you by phone.

If you add up the nearly 200 francs to sign up, the E-mail signup by Minitel 60 francs a month, plus the line charges incurred while typing e-mails online at so much per slow minute - you may conclude this could be a bit expensive, and you would be right. The main thing to remember is, you don't have to buy and learn to use a computer.

Elected officials look on as Mr. Poste helps users sign up for e-mail via Minitel.

Should you have a computer, a modem and an ISP already, you can still have a Poste e-mail account; for 24 francs per month. You might want to do this if you need Poste-authenticated print copies of your e-mail, delivered to your mailbox.

Marly-le-Roi's special deal has been to get the Poste to skip its startup charge from now until the end of the year, and to assign Marly its own domain name. Thus our subscriber's e-mail URL in Marly would be "popcorn.willy@marlyleroi.net"

France Télécom Goes Public; The Cable and the Internet

While Marly-le-Roi has been blazing its path into cyberspace, the other event of the week was the partial sale of France Télécom to the share-buying public.

Last Monday, about 27 percent of the outfit was offered on the market. Initial private subscribers paid 182 francs a share, and by the end of the first day's trading, they had made a paper gain of 13.46 percent; and the French state had made a real gain of 47 billion francs.

Of this, 12 billion is to be set aside for subsidizing another state concern, Thomson Multimedia. The European Commission has agreed to let France do this - normally this sort of affair is frowned upon - on condition that Thomson can get and hold 10 percent of European TV-set sales.

Although Thompson is believed to be strong in research and development areas for upcoming multimedia engineering; the normal procedure for making analog TV-sets is to farm it out - mostly to the Asian 'Tiger' producers. I don't know if putting 'Thompson' labels on TV-sets made in the far east will satisfy the Eurocrats in Brussels.

Earlier today, I paid a visit to France Télécom's commercial office in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Where I live I have a cable-TV connection. The poste bike & dog cable belongs to France Télécom, but the cable-TV operator is a water company, and it is also the same company which laid the cable - because of all its experience laying water pipes.

It might be with this very bike the postman brings your e-mail; dog permitting.

Since France Télécom actually owns the cable itself, I asked them if they had similar plans for offering Internet access - because I see no reason why a water company which runs the cable-TV concession should be the only source of Internet by cable.

The engineer who spoke to me, said he didn't know what France Télécoms' plans are; but was plainly aware of the implications of the question.

The telephone company is already an ISP with its 'Wanadoo' service. The advantage of this provider is to offer France-wide dialup service at local-call line rates - which is of major importance when a user is beyond the local-call area of any ISP.

Cable-TV as Internet Provider?

The cable-TV company is currently offering - to start in January - a 'digital' service for delivering its TV wares, although there are no 'digital' TV sets available yet. The 'digital' part is just squeezing more bandwidth out of the copper cable.

The cable operator has also been running tests in selected areas - of Internet access via cable-modem. This might also be called the 'set-top box.' Put into perspective, 'digital'-cable and Internet access via cable, seem to be moving ahead at a snail's pace compared to the initiative of the small town of Marly.

Until deregulation becomes more general, the only provider of France-wide phone service is France Télécom. For cable-TV, I do not see any competitor on the horizon. I have, like everyone else in France, been paying a lot to both of these monopolies.

Just as France Télécom's engineer does not know what will happen, I am wondering if a little competition in both areas - cable-TV and telephone service - might reduce monthly bills a bit. And, at the same time, offer a wider diversity of services as a bonus.

While the 'big hats' are thinking about this, François-Henri Le Virieu, the Mayor of Marly-le-Roi, has arranged for its inhabitants to have a reasonable e-mail service right now - and perhaps best of all, they get it with their own unique domain name.

The URLs

Write to the Mayor, François-Henri Le Virieu, of Marly-le-Roi.

Teleposte posterThis is Marly-le-Roi's Web site.

Radio France International is providing the music for Marly-Cyber-le-Roi - maybe - their web site was not responding when I tried it.

The INRIA has developed software for using the Internet as a telephone. Jingle v.1.0 Beta 3 is downloadable; but seems to only exist in a PC version. You may also want to look at the INRIA's Web site to see what they are up to; to see if we're getting our money's worth.

Finally, if you want to have a look at what France's 'national operator' is up to, give Wanadoo a hit.

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