Speeding To L’infopike

If this last decade of the century is indeed a new era of technological expansion, then the French government recently sparked the ’90s version of the Oklahoma land rush along the frontiers of the infopike, with the likes of pay TV king Canal Plus and cable giant Lyonnaise Communications among the pioneers.

In November, France made a public appeal to all state-owned and private Gallic enterprises for any and all proposals of “new highways and services of information.” The more than 600 projects submitted to the government since have been a stampede of ideas that range from multimedia health services to dozens of video-on-demand designs and tele-shopping schemes.

The idea was to hold a “grand conversation” among broadcasters, cablers, computer companies and local governments in order to jump-start what – on this side of the Atlantic – has been a stagnant information revolution. The government’s infopike bible, the Thery Report, places France five years behind Great Britain and 15 years behind the United States in creating widespread new media networks.

“This call for proposals is a direct consequence of the Thery Report – a way of catching up with United States and (Time Warner’s) experiments in Orlando,” says Alain Le Diberder, director of new programs for Canal Plus, which submitted four potential projects.

Like the Orlando experiment, each of the 630 French-proposed infopike on-ramps covers a single region or city, but needs to meet only four other criteria: be available to the public, have a loosely defined “usefulness,” be financially self-sufficient and, above all, be innovative.

“Innovation is the key word,” says Jean-Baptiste Main de Boissiere, technology counselor to the minister of industry, post and telecommunications. “The government wants to encourage experimentation in new services while evaluating their economic viability.”

Main de Boissiere says the government currently has no plans to finance the projects; though some public money may come later; the projects all primarily depend on private capital. The government will analyze each to determine approval and the way in which it would affect the French audiovisual and telecommunications landscape.

Cable operators who wish to offer phone service are using the call for proposals as a first step. France Telecom currently holds a monopoly but the European Union has ordered that telephony be deregulated by 1998, and Main de Boissiere says this proposal process could accelerate the switch.

The government also will screen the proposals for their use of frequency bands, handling of intellectual property rights and programming content. France, famous for drawing cultural borders along programming lines for TV and film, has begun a similar campaign with new media. A government report that accompanied the call for infopike projects warned against “electronic attacks” on French culture.

“Each country should be able to set a framework for supporting local production and to impose specific requirements to preserve cultural and linguistic diversity,” it said.

Some French industry leaders, however, have said they hope for more cooperation among nations when it comes to creating multimedia projects. “We… have to work with partners in the United States, Canada, Japan,” Canal Plus’ Le Diberder says.

The four proposals Canal Plus submitted, like many of the other 630, are services or technologies either integral to or added on to a larger consumer offer. As part of proposed changes to cabler General des Eaux’s network in Nice, on the Mediterranean coast, Canal Plus wants to offer a digitally interactive program guide, a version of video on demand that would use 10 to 20 channels that each play and replay a different film, a videogame channel that would include the ability to download games for a personal computer and interactive, televised classified ads.

General des Eaux also has applied to use Nice to offer experimental phone services.

Lyonnaise Communications, France’s biggest cable operator with 33% of homes passed, will try to merge phone and cable services with other communications platforms in Annecy, along the Swiss border.

France Telecom meanwhile, proposed a variety of multimedia services and online projects including an extension of the Minitel, its 13-year-old nuts-and-bolts precursor to modern online networks and often referred to as the “French Internet” despite commercial uses defined and limited by antiquated technology.

Many regions and towns also offered projects. For instance, local governments in the French region of Alsace, along the German border, are considering a plan to spend 1.9 billion francs ($361 million) through 1999 on “Project Crystal,” a regional stretch of the infopike that will provide tele-medicine, tele-education, tele-shopping and multimedia products online. The project, whose partners include IBM and France Telecom, also will seek financial support, this month from the European Union.

Last month the EU proposed $500 million in audiovisual subsidies and France has suggested similar support for European digital media.

The French government also may consider helping some of the infopike projects.

“We wouldn’t pay for infrastructure but if there is a public need we could give incentive money for market studies or feasibility studies to improve business chances,” Main de Boissiere says. “But nothing is decided.”

Funding aside, Le Diberder said General des Eaux’s construction of the needed networks for their mutual projects in Nice would only take about a year, if approved.

The government and those who offered the new ideas say the Jan. 23 proposal deadline made them all a little hurried, and most ideas need added details or more concrete planning.

“Now the serious work begins,” says Le Diberder.

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