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Internet in France 2002: An overview

Last week, I was in France for a short vacation. During that time, I got a chance to talk to people locally and get a better idea as to what was going on within the Internet market in France. Here are a few observations based on my understanding of what is going on.

Strong Growth

France had been a leader in terms of establishing an information society but was starting to get trapped by its legacy Minitel tool. The Minitel was introduced in France in the late 70s as essentially a precursor to the web. The service allowed users to read online versions of magazines and newspapers, shop in online catalogs, chat, play games, and have access to every government office. In the early 80s, Minitel penetration became so high that the government-owned phone company decided to drop printing of phone books and move that service to the Minitel.

Fast forward to the late 90s. France is still on the Minitel and the Internet has gotten wide acceptance in the United States. At that point, Internet penetration in France is sluggish as few people see any value in it. As a result, the French government issued an ambitious plan to move France onto the Internet. As is the case for every major government project, little happened for several years.

However, the combination of government support for a new Internet initiative and the rise of global services finally started a revolution in French online services. According to several people I talked to in Paris and in the south of France, the effects of the Internet were not really felt until about a year ago, when a sudden usage explosion started. From 1999 to 2001, the number of Internet users in France tripled and it is expected to double this year to about 30 million. As more and more services are now moving away from the Minitel and onto the Internet (as I was told by an American living in France, the Minitel is now fairly useless as most everything has moved onto the Internet.)

Combined with growth in other European countries, this represents a market of almost 150 million users in Europe.

Broadband

While most Internet users in Europe still use narrowband, a few people are starting to make the move to broadband. However, prohibitive costs for DSL mean that most broadband users in France are accessing the net via cable. A DSL line can cost over 100 euros whereas a cable modem connection can be had for as little as 15 euros, with averages of 30-45 euros per months for a 500Kbps connection. The big advantage of such connections in Europe is that local phone is metered whereas broadband is not. As a result, heavy Internet users are finding that it is less expensive to get a broadband cable connection than it is to use a modem and phone line.

The Euro

For the first time in history, 12 countries have simultaneously gotten rid of their currencies and moved to create a single monetary block: the Euro is here and it has wide implications on global E-commerce.

No more Austrian schillings, Belgian, Luxembourg or French francs, Finnish markka, German Marks, Greek drachma, Irish punts, Italian lira, Dutch guilders, Portuguese escudos, or Spanish pesetas. No more complexity in trying to convert those from one to the other when doing electronic transactions. Now, the Euro is the currency for this whole zone (dubbed the Eurozone) and it represents a very large market, larger, in fact, than the American market in terms of customers.

One the biggest challenges in dealing with the European market was the lack of standardization when it comes to laws, shipping, currency, and language. With the Euro, a large portion of that problem can be taken care of as members of the Eurozone start moving towards developing a similar set of economic policies.

Essentially, the Euro takes away the barrier of multiple currency transactions that held back some users from shopping online and some vendors from launching e-commerce sites.

A couple of years ago, I alerted our readers to the fact that Europe was quietly rising as a new giant in the global E-commerce arena. With the rise of the Euro, this message is becoming more important. Now that a market of almost 150 million people has been created, the US is no longer the only place where E-commerce can work and as such, it is important for people in the US to start looking at technological developments in Europe. In the long run, a number of European companies will probably become some of the larger players in the online space.

Wireless connectivity

While everyone in the U.S. is starting to pay attention to WiFi, the wireless computing revolution has not yet taken hold in Europe. On the one hand, cell phones keep getting smaller and offering more features (Multimedia messaging is started to take hold among European digerati), there seems to be some lag in the adoption of wireless computing offering. A few underground efforts are getting organized, in a fashion similar to that seen in the USA a couple of years ago.

Conclusion

The Internet space in France seems to now follow a curve similar to the one experienced in the United States in the late 1990s. However, the lack of venture capital and the fact that, much like the United States, France is suffering from an economic slowdown, have tampered the explosion. While acceptance for everything Internet is growing, the adoption of networked technology is following a course that is different from that of the US and UK. While there will be strong growth in the Internet field in France over the next year, expect that revolution to be relatively quiet, compared to what was experienced in other countries.

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