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The French overcome old hangups in their telephone technology

Only 10 years ago, the French telephone system was archaic. Waiting lists were two to three years for a phone, and what phones existed were frequently out of service.

Just as galling to the nationalistic French was foreign domination of their telecommunications industries. International Telephone & Telegraph (ITT) and Sweden's Ericsson controlled 60 percent of the French market.

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But under the leadership of Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the government launched a major effort to alter the situation. From 1975 to 1980, the French Post, Telephone, and Telecommunications (PTT) department spent $30 billion, upgrading and doubling the number of subscriber lines. At the same time, the government pressured ITT and Ericsson to divest themselves of their French subsidiaries. In 1976, the two multinationals capitulated, and sold most of their assets to Thompson-CSF, an electronics giant.

Today, it takes only a day to have a telephone installed, and phones work here just as well as in the United States. Just as important, the French companies claim to have produced the major technological advance in the telecommunications field in the past decade - a computerized digital switching system for telephone lines. France is a leader in this field, termed telematics.

One of the main ingredients of this economic success has been government sponsorship of the telecommunications industry. The government has helped not only by directly investing in the industry, but also by providing technological advances and helping market its products abroad.

Following in this tradition, the new Socialist government has made the nation's major telecommunications producers, Thompson CSF and Cit-Alcatel, now the sixth- and eighth-largest telecommunications companies in the world, two of their 11 major nationalization targets.

While American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T) and most of the world's other telecommunications companies were developing and producing electronic analogue switching systems, Cit-Alcatel jumped technology generations with its digital switching.

''A lot of people thought we were crazy, that the technology wasn't ready and it would be too expensive,'' said Robert Debruin, Cit-Alcatel's spokesman.

But digital has proved to be the future of telecommunications. Today, various digital systems are leading in the world, with 30 percent of the market. And their percentage is growing rapidly, PTT statistics show. Digital turned out to be much cheaper than other switching systems, primarily because the price of its electronic components has been steadily decreasing and because it is cheap to maintain, Mr. Debruin said.

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It is precisely in this fusing of computers and telephones - the telematic process - that the French are also undertaking a new technological adventure. Because the new digital systems move traffic in the computer's binary language, telephone lines can carry television pictures, computer data, personal mail, or even bank transfers to a terminal at the office or home.

Thompson-CSF is one of the world's leaders in telematics research and development. ''We think telematics will be the wave of the future,'' Thompson's Marie-Helene Lafaye de Micheaux said.

In fact, though, telematics is already starting to pay off. Thompson has helped install computer terminals in three French suburbs, providing a full range of information services. Major sales to the US include desk teminals to GTE, digital disks to Xerox, and telecopiers to 3M, Mrs. Lafaye de Micheaux said.

The two French telecommunications giants are just beginning to edge into the American market. But exports elsewhere have produced much of their earnings. Cit-Alcatel has installed 7.5 million lines of its digital equipment in 24 countries; and Thompson, 2.5 million equivalent lines in 14 countries.

''We have no choice but to export, since France's telecommunications market is only 3 percent of the world market,'' Mrs. Lafaye de Micheaux explains.

Here, too, the French government has helped the two companies. It has provided favorable credit and financing arrangements, and proved especially astute in maintaining and developing its commercial lines with North Africa, the Middle East, and French-speaking Africa.

Because government intervention in Thompson and Cit-Alcatel has been so profound even under the previous conservative administration, neither company expects to see much change after they are nationalized. ''The two groups were so dependent on the state anyhow that you could say they were basically almost already nationalized,'' explained Gerard Dega of the PTT.

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