Elizabeth Renee Crowley
February 2nd 1987
Before even thinking of talking technical stuff, history of the concept, and the major players involved we have to define what Commtel actually is. At it's heart Commtel is a system that delivers information through the phone line from a series of regional hubs to a person's home through a specialized piece of equipment that either displays information through the end-user's television, a specialized card that can be plugged into your computer, or is an all-in-one monitor/modem/input device setup.
Back in the late 60's (exact date is unclear because of conflicting information, roughly 1966 to 1969 range, making it something of a contemporary to ARPAnet) the BBC looked into close captioning systems, which then was further improved to deliver not just text for deaf viewers but any sort of information. This system was unveiled as Ceefax in 1972 as something of a one way info-dump. This related to Telex in the British postal system (that also owned the phone networks) were coming up with a competing system that would allow information to go in as well as go out.
Because equipment was expensive the two systems were compatible and relied heavily on using the same standards since if you could get one person who owns your competetor's equipment to start using your service then them not having to buy all new equipment would be helpful. Plus, and this is more important here, standardizing signal decoding and content means even if the three or four systems in place aren't so compatible you can use one box for somebody else enough of the boxes innards match that they each become cheaper to make, which is important when you want Everyone to use it instead of just those that can afford to drop several thousand on a curiosity.
On seeing all this stuff go on in Britan France wigs out thinking that they're lagging behind, and to be blunt their entire phone system has to go through an overhaul anyway, so while they were at it the french decided to leapfrog Everyone by coming up with Minitel. Like all major advances it didn't happen overnight, and detailing the history of minitel goes beyond the bounds of this report, but it was a combination of the fact the phone network of France getting an overhaul, the fact France itself is a very culturally unified nation, and that the government owned the wires (or at least had enough of a say so that they could dictate how things would develop that this system managed to take root.
It should be noted that Minitel was tried in other European nations. Germany, Sweden, and Canada even tried it for a few years before handing it over to us to figure out (not trying to make Canada seem incapable, they apparently just had more immediate problems on hand.)
The French Minitel system was researched for years, but was only deployed in 1980, and while this is backed more by personal guess and math based on the cost of electronics, the lag time between idea and deployment was partially to make sure there was content, but more importantly the wait was because the cost of terminals was too much to make manufacturing practical even for a state-sponsored system.
This leads us to AT&T getting wind of the french system while it was still in development.
Snags along the Way
AT&T had what amounted to a government backed and regulated monopoly on the phone system for most of the 20th century. At the time it was granted the thinking was instead of having five or six companies in a given area each using their own lines and having customers that couldn't talk to eachother for the national good streamline it all under one company, but because Monopolies tend to breed poor working conditions and little incintive for innovation due to lack of competition or customer choice this happened only with the government stepping in and dictating terms that AT&T had to abide by.
All well and good, except there were parties that felt AT was getting too big and even with government oversight had to break up to allow competition and innovation above and beyond what it was already providing. The Anti-Trust decisions handed down first in 1949 and enforced in later rulings ended up with terms dictated by the late seventies and culminated in the 1984 divisement of ATT's assets which has given us the Baby bells and, hopefully, less gonzo phone charges.
As a result of this splitting of assets the department that had been charged with looking into France's Minitel services was spun off into it's own company. Interestingly enough Ward Christensen and Randy Seuss, a couple guys from Chicago and with no real connections at the time to any government agencies other than Mr. Seuss's background in the Navy, hit on a similar system that these large scale experiments were aiming at. The BBS was born.
Just because a couple garage hackers for a computer club in the mid-west made a little something (and more importantly distributed the source code for free) didn't mean ATT couldn't keep moving. They were in the middle of a government mandated splintring, so if that wasn't going to stop them the home-brew BBS wasn't going to either.
If anything the development of CBBS helped Commtel because the code was meant to run on a personal computer over one phone-line and any system that dialed in had to have some way of talking to it. So the code was integrated (there was apparently an attempt at hiring Randy and Ward on as consultants but this is merely anecdotal.)
So much could have gone wrong here. There were four or five standards, and if Commtel had been ordered to further subdivide each regional company could have chosen to go it's own way ending up with devices incompatible with eachother. Manufacturers had to be secured (The budget terminals ended up being built by both Radio Shack and Commodore Business Machines to a set of specifications that ensured even though each would use their own designs they would be compatible and work enough alike for the end-user that it didn't matter who made what.)
Testing started in LA, New York, and Chicago in '84 right after the asset divestment was made official (presumeably on the idea that they wanted to make sure people would quit freaking out over whether the phones would keep working or not.) Why those cities? They're all fairly dense centers of population meaning an electronic directory service would, if widely accepted, be a cost effective replacement for phone book deliveries, which is important because Directory lookups make up the majority useage of the service due to both need and because it is one of the few things that are free.
What is Offered?
While there are similarities to BBS's, such as the one at Cross-Town High, in that you have to dial out, log in, and more or less all of the information is sent to you from a remote location rather than stored on a floppy disk or a hard-drive that is where the similarities start to break down. While one would be tempted to think of the destination each terminal dials in a Commtel setup as being an ungodly large BBS even Fidonet has problems letting you move from one Board to the next just by selecting a link in whatever screen you're viewing that will take you somewhere else.
Example: I'm looking up Fast Eddie's Noodle Emporium in the yellow pages. Their advertisement lists both their phone number and that they have a Node that offers more information. Since looking at a yellow pages site is free I use arrow keys (or tab) to move over to the node address and hit enter. The Screen then gets replaced by whatever information Fast Eddie decided to put up, including further links for items, pricing, a little bit about the history of the shop, awards, and so forth.
These terminals, both the budget and upscale models, offer a boon to the hearing impaired since each allows you to directly call up another person's number and use the keyboard to either leave messages or, if the other person accepts, 'talk' in real time by typing to each other. There are talks of having a device that works off of a sequence of pins set in a row to allow blind users to 'view' pages rather than have to depend on a sighted person to read the screen to them, but this device is years away as a specification for translating to braille is still being worked on and it is hoped in time costs will go down enough to make this practical rather than a curiosity.
So again what is offered and how much does it cost?
Yellow Page Lookups: Free
White Page Lookups: Twenty Five Cents per search.
Direct dialing in your local area: Free
News Subscription: Cost depends on the subscription, Anywhere from $5 - $30 a month
As soon as you dial into the network with your terminal/computer/whatever you get a welcome screen. If you have no subscriptions there are advertisements on the lower half of the screen and 'how to use' instructions on the upper half.
As you subscribe to things you get the newest piece of information from each subscription on your welcome screen and you can select each for free and read as long as you like (or if you have a printer make a print-out.)
Electronic Mail: $15 a month plus an additional $25 per additional inbox
Each billing address can have One inbox, much like your home's mailbox, where short pieces of text (approximately 3500 characters, roughly one page of paper's worth) can be sent. Each Inbox can hold twenty messages. After that you are charged five dollars per message over your quota. This may seem steep, but with drive prices still in the thousands it is justified to help ensure users learn to do more with less, and even with these restrictions being able to leave messages for late reading as opposed to calling, hoping the other person has an answering machine and then hoping they'll actually listen to the message, is useful.
Plus this seems aimed more at businesses than personal use.
General browsing: Ten Cents a minute for the first ten minutes. Twenty five cents a minute for the next ten minutes. A dollar a minute after that. You are allowed to search anything that shares the same area code you're dialing from (meaning if you're out of town you can log in using your home log-in and get access to mail, address book, and subscriptions but you would be limited to browsing whatever's in that terminal's area code.
It should be noted that if you find something you like and wish to browse further you can add it to your favorites; a list of five nodes of whatever sort that you can brows as often as you like for $20 a month.
Out of Network Browsing: Anything that isn't in your area code costs 25 cents a minute for the first ten minutes, then seventy cents for the next twenty minutes, and then a dollar a minute.
It isn't just about what Commtel themselves will sell you. There's the beginings of a healthy market for more capable terminals, cards to use for your computer, printers, floppy dries, hard drives, and all sorts of talk on what people can do to make things... well... More.
Is it worth signing up for?
But we already have bulletin boards. We have Fidonet (which can let you connect to a different node across the country essentially for nothing. It also has electronic mail.) What need is there for this Commtel network when everything costs money? Convenience. It's easy to use, mostly because their goal is to make it so even grandma can figure it out with a minimum of help and hand holding, and for your average person the added cost to your bill isn't going to be that bad, especially as an alternative to finding a BBS you like, finding out it's considered out of your calling bubble, and dialing in nightly has racked up a $400 phone bill.
If at some later point this network can end up talking to fidonet, or users can host their own content thanks to the fact computing power and storage space tends to go up at an ever increasing rate at lower costs per bit manipulated per year it will become an even more attractive system even when competing against 'free.'
It is my personal opinion that many businesses reliant on this new network will fail due to poor business planning and or a shift in the market that causes their way of making money to implode. There's already talk on the winds of MCI attempting to either outright buy or at least fund turning Fidonet from Tom Jennings. I doubt it since I'm not sure Mr. Jennings ownes Fidonet so much as wrote the software and helps maintain the node list.
The next few years will be interesting while we see if this system lasts. Even if Commtel falls thorugh the terminals, at the very least, can be used to dial into different boards, and some of the higher end units are actually quite nice for what they are (eighty char wide text display, can display sixty four unique colors, and surprisingly more than a few have sound capabilities on par with the C64.