10m users crash Gallic answer to Google

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The Independent Online

Ten million people were stuck in a "virtual" traffic jam over the weekend as they tried to visit France from the comfort of their own computer screens.

The launch of a free aerial photograph site, allowing users to zoom in on any part of France, down to details the size of a dustbin, proved an enormous success. It also proved a logistical disaster.

The new site - www.geoportail.fr - opened by the French national mapping agency, IGN, was hopelessly inadequate to meet demand. Only one in five of those who tried to enter the site managed to do so for more than a few seconds.

The organisers promised to expand capacity, and to ration access through free passwords, in the next couple of days.

Geoportail, the forerunner of a European Union-wide project, is intended partly as France's response to the popular global aerial photograph site, Google Earth, which was launched last year.

The French equivalent of the Ordnance Survey, the Institut Géographique National, claims that its site will be more detailed, more consistent and clearer than its global rival.

Users will have access to 400,000 aerial photographs, taken in the past few years, showing every commune in France - including overseas communes in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean and Pacific.