Prestel: The Ghost of Internet Past

5 · APR ·2017

Prestel was internet before internet; Camden before Shoreditch, Twin Peaks before Lost, if you will.

Launched in 1979 by the Post Office (who looked after the phone lines back then), Prestel gave thousands of people a glimpse of their connected futures by offering online shopping, train timetables and internet banking directly through your TV.

Prestel was able to achieve such science fiction by utilising a piece of tech called Viewdata, an information retrieval service in which a subscriber could access a remote database via common carrier channel, request data and receive said data on a video display over a separate channel. If you don’t speak fluent jargon then it’s best to think of Prestel as an interactive, 2-way Teletext, albeit with far more scope.

Whilst superficially similar to Teletext, Prestel ran across the phone network, in comparison to Teletext which was transmitted across the television signal. You plugged a terminal into your television set and it connected to a database of information via a telephone line. The idea was that computers cost way too much dollar back then, so by delivering content online through the TV (which everybody had) was a somewhat logical way to get consumers online.

By the mid-1980s, Prestel offered many modern services that are commonplace today. Online gaming, banking, food shopping, chat rooms, booking theatre tickets and emailing were all available to the Prestel subscriber and yet despite this, there were still only 60,000 subscribers.

The problem was that, whilst clearly revolutionary stuff, the terminals that plugged into the telly’s cost a small fortune and the graphics were rubbish and there wasn’t any sound or video (people are shallow). Alongside this there was a quarterly subscription fee of £5 per quarter and a 5p cost per minute to use the service.

This means that, to the average Joe, it made more sense to go buy a newspaper or flick the news on the telly to get some sweet, sweet content. Also, you have to remember that this was the 80s and computers and networking were not yet fully ingrained in society as they are today.

Users simply did not really understand or appreciate the services that were being put on a plate for them at this moment in time – why would they buy a book when they already had a library card?

Terrible analogies aside, at its peak Prestel had around 90,000 subscribers in the UK. However this was way short of expectations and it was eventually sold to BT, who tried to relaunch it a couple of times, before it eventually fell out of existence, replaced by the actual internet.

Perhaps Prestel should have followed France’s lead, who actually launched their own similar service called Minitel around the same time. Minitel was hugely successful (only being turned off in 2012) with the big difference was that the French government gave terminals away for free.

Whilst Prestel has mostly disappeared into the abyss, there is one lingering spell that has yet to fully air out. In 1984 The Duke of Edinburgh's Prestel email account was hacked and it was only after this that the government realised that they had nothing in place to protect people in the event of hackage. Therefore they created the Computer Misuse Act 1990 to stop all further perps.

So whenever you get caught trying to hack into your neighbour's wifi router, know that it’s Prestel’s fault that you’re going down for a 20-stretch. Cheers Prestel. Thanks a lot.

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Posted by Dan Pope