What's this Minitel thing anywayOutside of France most people never heard of the Minitel.
Released in 1981, first as a small scale test in Bretagne and then extended to the rest of the country, the Minitel business plan was a stroke of genius from France Telecom: Give the choice between the regular printed White Pages and a small dumb black and white terminal allowing you to find the same thing faster; then use the large number of available terminals to allow the creation of commercial offers to make a profit of it.
In just few years a large number of services were available. In was common in France to use it to order train tickets or check the bank account balance, and that long before anyone heard of Internet. Among other services you could also find the list of movies available at the local cinema, specialized services for doctors (like some kind of online versions of diagnosis and drugs lists), online multi user chats, x-rated services of course as well (the famous "minitel rose").
Later the Minitel evolved, bringing higher resolution modes as well as color display. Unfortunately, most of the pages were designed using the various colors in a way to get nice shades of grey, resulting in some pretty horrific pages when seen later in their full 8 pure colors glory!
Pricing systemSome of these services were free, but for most you had to pay a fix amount per minute, the amount depending of the tarification grid used by this particular service. To access the free white pages you would use the 3611 phone number, the most common services like the french railways used the 3615 access, but some more exclusive services existed.
The way it worked is that you paid for the service through France Telecom based on how long you stayed connected, modulated by the price per minute used for the various services. Then France Telecom would pay back a percentage to the services owners.
Many servers had a front page using a certain billing grid, but would also be accessible using lower cost back-doors. These were mainly for the site operators themselves, but a number of VIP had accesses to these.
3614 RTELRTEL was one of these services, most people did not have access to the lower cost gate (3614) and used the main gate instead.
Many of the French demosceners at the time were using RTEL as their main communication channel, using the public and private discussion forums, but also the built-in mail system1. I myself stopped using it around 1994 when I had to pay my own phone bills for the first time :)
File transfersThe Minitel was a pretty slow device, and the built-in modem was not particularly fast either: It was an asymmetrical 75/1200 bauds connection. The idea was that most services would involve a bit of typing but mostly a lot of receiving, thus the faster download rate.
Many people did not know it, but it was perfectly possible to dial the phone number of a friend who also had a Minitel, and instead of answering on the phone your friend could just press the CONNECT button of the Minitel and then you could both discuss using some very primitive terminal chat. A number of people with either voice or audition problems would use this feature regularly instead of using the phone.
Obviously when you put together two asymmetrical devices they will have to use the slowest speed, so this kind of dialog between two Minitels would run at 75 bauds. Fortunately the designers of the Minitel were very smart people, and in the communication protocol code they added a signal allowing any Minitel to reverse his modem: Instead of sending at 75 and receiving at 1200 it would send at 1200 and receive at 75 bauds. That was all we needed to transfer files electronically between computers!
Calling cards abusesPutting all that together, some people found out it was possible to actually make money from piracy.
The concept was simple: If you have a Minitel service, you get money from France Telecom a part of the connection cost paid by the users of your service. The most expensive the service, the longest the connection, the more money you get. Putting two by two together, these people figured out that all they had to do was to have some Minitel based BBS system allowing the download of files using Minitels or modems. That would provide them with a way to distribute pirated software easily while making money from it. The only problem is that this would be very costly to anyone downloading or uploading software.
The solution was provided by AT&T and American travelers.
Once upon a time, all these restaurants, hotels, shops, etc... were handing out purchase tickets that had way too much information written on it. Like full card numbers or dates. And most people were very careless with these, they would generally threw them out in the trashcans or left them on the table when leaving a restaurant. On the other hand there was these people who would spend time collecting all these little paper, and then would resell lists with card numbers to whoever want them.
No there was no Internet at this time, and no you would not use these to order expensive goods on Amazon.com, so what you would do if you had a decently good English pronunciation is to call the toll free number of the AT&T on your phone, wait for an operator to answer, and when prompted say that you want to call some phone number using your card for billing. Then you would enumerate the number of the card you got from the list, the operator would then dial up the number and transfer your call to the new line. At this point all you have to do is to press the CONNECT button of your Minitel and you are ready for business: Uploading and downloading as much files as you want, with a small guilt feeling toward the person who was going to have to pay thousand of dollars of bills at the end of the month2.
I myself did not participate, not because of some elevated moral, mostly because my English accent sucked so hard that there was no way an operator would accept me as a lawful owner of the card...
I hope you liked this small trip in the past!
In memory of the Minitel, definitely turned off in June 2012
Note: You can learn about Pinky (one of the sites featured on this animated picture) at http://www.troude.com/Pinky/Index.html-ssi