of the net
page covers the shape and history of telecommunications
in Australia and New Zealand up to the mid-1980s.
It covers -
Telecommunications in Australia began in 1854 with
a telegraph line from Melbourne city to Williamstown,
publicly funded but privately constructed (like South
Australia's first line in 1856 from Port Adelaide to Adelaide
city). At that time there were over 23,000 miles of line
in the US (up from 12,000 miles in 1850, 2,000 in 1848
and 40 in 1846).
By 1856 the length of line in Victoria had grown to 36
miles, with 14,738 messages (increasing to 35,792 messages
in 1857). During that year Victoria, NSW and South Australia
agreed to collaborate on establishment of an intercolonial
telegraph network. That agreement was the precursor of
a series of agreements about infrastructure and rates.
Messages going across colonial borders initially involved
paper, with operators in one colony often transcribing
a message which was then physically handed to a counterpart
in the second colony (in some instances through a hole
in a partition or a shared wall) for transmission over
that colonies wire.
Adelaide and Melbourne were linked in 1858, the year in
which the first NSW line was activated. A Sydney-Melbourne
link was in place by November 1858. The first line in
Queensland was activated in April 1861, with a connection
to Sydney in November of that year. The first transcontinental
line in the US dates from the same year. The first line
between Launceston and Hobart dates from 1857, with a
(short-lived) cable from Victoria to Tasmania in 1859.
The first line in Western Australia - from Perth to Fremantle
- came a decade later. By 1890 WA had 2,961 miles of telegraph
line; that increased to 6,052 miles of line by 1901.
As of 1861 there were 110 telegraph stations across the
eastern colonies. By 1867 there were 1,676 miles of line
within Victoria, handling 122,138 messages (compared to
around 7.92 million in the US and 5.78 million in the
UK that year). Reuters,
in competition with local news agencies, operated in Australia
from 1860 onwards. the cost per word for a message from
London was at that time equivalent to the average weekly
New Zealand was slower off the mark, with its first telegraph
line (from Christchurch to Lytletton) active from 1862.
In that year there were around 32,000 miles of telegraph
line and an estimated five million messages in the US,
with 19,240 miles in the UK. The first telegraph link
across New Zealand's Cook Strait was established in 1866.
A link between Adelaide and Perth was established in 1875,
with the 2,900 kilometre Adelaide to Port Darwin link
(the Overland Telegraph Line or OTL) in 1872 costing £300,000.
The OTL met the privately-owned Singapore to Port Darwin
cable established in 1870 by the British Australian Telegraph
Company. The latter was a predecessor of the current UK
Cable & Wireless (CW)
group. Its Batavia (Jakarta) to Broome link was completed
in 1889, with a link to Perth via the Cocos-Keeling Islands
(the present dot-cc cTLD)
The first Australia to New Zealand telegraph link was
achieved in 1876. Ten years later there were over 8,000
miles of line in Queensland alone. Brisbane was linked
to New Caledonia in 1891.
For the first fifty years of its existence most people
in Australia and New Zealand experienced telecommunications
through telegraphy even where the telephone was available.
It was thus at second hand, rather than directly person-to-person.
That experience often involved couriers, with a 'telegraph
boy' for example delivering a handwritten or printed message
to a residence, business or other location. It also involved
use of official post offices and agencies, with individuals
for example visiting an office and writing the message
on a form which was then keyed for transmission to the
desired destination. Messages were charged on a character
by character basis and on the basis of distance, resulting
in 'telegraphese' (truncated spelling and grammar that
was a precursor of texting).
Australia's first telephone service (connecting the Melbourne
and South Melbourne offices of Robinson Brothers) was
launched in 1879, with the first telephone exchange opened
in Melbourne in 1880 shortly before the hanging of bushranger
Ned Kelly. Around 7,757 calls were handled in 1884.
New Zealand's first telephone exchange (in Christchurch)
was active from 1881, a year marked in the US by the death
of Billy the Kid.
The first Australian coin-operated public phones appear
to have been installed in 1890, two years after their
appearance in the US.
shape of the network
The Australian networks were government assets operating
under colonial legislation modelled on that of Britain.
The UK Telegraph Act 1868 for example empowered
the Postmaster General to "acquire, maintain and
work electric telegraphs" and foreshadowed the 1870
competing British telegraph companies.
The nature of the networks meant that regulation in Australia
was undemanding -
personnel were government employees or agents
was enhanced on an incremental basis (with some recognition
of privacy and copyright
restrictions could be achieved through infrastructure.
the colonies ran their telegraph networks at a deficit
through investment in infrastructure and subsidisation
of regional access, generally with bipartisan support.
Government-operated post office
and telegraph networks - the largest parts of the bureaucracy
- were amalgamated into a single department in each colony
on the model of the UK Post Office: South Australia in
1869, Victoria in 1870, Queensland in 1880 and New South
Wales in 1893.
Configuration of the networks reflected the railway network,
with the 'trunk' lines - what would now be characterised
as the backbone - between Melbourne and Brisbane for example
using the right of way alongside the state-owned railway
track connecting those cities.
federation and the PSTN
Section 51(v) of the 1901 Australian Constitution
gave the new national government power over all postal,
telegraphic, telephonic and 'other like services'. The
latter encompassed future developments such as radio,
television and the internet.
That responsibility is discussed in our profile on the
Cyberspace and in John La Nauze's crisp 'Other Like Services:
Physics & the Australian Constitution' in No Ordinary
Act (Carlton: Melbourne Uni Press 2001) edited by
Helen Irving & Stuart Macintyre.
The colonial networks (staff, switches, wires, handsets,
buildings etc) were transferred to the Commonwealth and
became the responsibility of the first Postmaster-General
(PMG), a federal Minister overseeing the Postmaster-General's
Department that managed all domestic telephone, telegraph
and postal services. With 16,000 staff (and assets of
over £6 million) it accounted for 90% of the new federal
bureaucracy. That figure climbed to over 120,000 staff
(around 50% of the federal bureaucracy) by the late sixties.
At the time of federation it would have been appropriate
to speak of a 'telephone divide'.
Public phones were available in a handful of post offices
and otherwise restricted to major businesses, government
agencies, institutions and wealthier residences. Eight
million telegrams were sent that year over 43,000 miles
of line. (In the UK there were around 89 million messages.)
There were around 33,000 phones across Australia, with
7,502 telephone subscribers in inner Sydney and 4,800
in the Melbourne central business district. A trunk line
between Melbourne (headquarters of the PMG Department)
and Sydney was established in 1907, with extension to
Adelaide in 1914, Brisbane in 1923, Perth in 1930 and
Hobart in 1935.
Overseas cable links to Australia remained in private
hands, reflecting the realities of imperial politics,
demands on the new government's resources and perceptions
of its responsibilities. The PMG department became responsible
for some international shortwave services - particularly
from the 1920s - and for a new Coastal Radio Service in
1911, with the first of a network of stations operational
in February 1912. Australia and New Zealand had ratified
the 1906 Berlin Radio-telegraph Convention in 1907 and
supported the International Conference on Safety of Life
at Sea (SOLAS), which required monitoring for distress
calls by ships at sea.
During the 1930s the PMG became responsible for the Australian
Broadcasting Commission (ABC), profiled here.
Its management of the telecommunications network echoed
the values enshrined by the ABC and the BBC - what once
critic characterised as "male, middle class, middle
brow and middle aged".
In the era of privatisation
it has been fashionable to hark back to a time when the
PMG was supposedly operated by enlightened technocrats
in the national interest and without concerns of profit.
That vision is problematical, as it is clear that decisions
about the location and management of facilities (switches
and service centres) reflected local political demands
and the 'Australian Settlement' first articulated by Alfred
The PMG was, after all, a major employer in rural areas,
the Minister generally came from the Country Party and
there was an emphasis on inhouse development and local
manufacturing. Governments of whatever persuasion used
the organisation as a cash cow; it was not a discrete
statutory body or company and faced problems in preventing
profits from being absorbed by the national consolidated
In rural areas uptake of telephony prior to 1945 was inhibited
by expectations that subscribers would provide/pay for
wiring beyond a short length of line near the exchange.
Many farmers accordingly constructed the lines themselves
on a 'part privately erected' (PPE) basis that frequently
involved use of substandard components (eg iron rather
than copper wire) and layouts (eg strung from trees or
along fences) with consequent poor performance and little
privacy on shared 'party lines'.
radio and picturegrams
In New Zealand the pre-emptive Wireless Telegraphy
Act 1903 had provided that only the Government was
permitted to receive/transmit wireless communications.
Unauthorised wireless telegraphy was subject to a £500
fine and confiscation of equipment, with the Attorney-General
whole principle of the Bill is that the Government intends
to acquire a monopoly of this system in the colony
thereby protect its investment in land-lines (a major
revenue source in a primarily agricultural economy). Radio
arrived some time later: the first domestic transmission
was made by the Marconi Company at the 1906 Christchurch
International Exhibition and the first trans-Tasman transmission
was made from HMS Pioneer (in Wellington harbour)
via HMS Powerful in the Tasman Sea to HMS
Psyche (in Sydney harbour) on 3 February 1908. A
government short-wave radio-telegraph link was established
with Apia in 1927, extended to Rarotonga in 1930.
A public radio-telephone service between Australia and
New Zealand commenced on 25 November 1930. In July of
the following year that was linked to the UK-Australia
radio-telephone service, which utilised beam wireless
stations in Victoria at Ballan and Rockband and Ballan.
Those stations were opened in 1927 by Amalgamated Wireless
Australasia (AWA). The company was an electrical conglomerate
- the Australian equivalent of General Electric in the
US - with interests extending from radio receiver manufacture
to operation of commercial broadcasting stations. The
two stations were primarily concerned with radiotelegraph
traffic. New Zealand's first high-speed radiotelegraph
service to the US commenced in 1942.
Facsimile services were introduced in both countries in
the late 1920s, using the Siemens-Karolus picturegram
system. Images were of low quality and transmission was
slow and expensive, so that most traffic appears to have
related to low resolution reproduction in newspapers of
photographs and cartoons. In Australia the first photographs
were transmitted between Sydney and Melbourne in 1929,
with the first radio-picturegram from London received
in Melbourne in 1934. Equipment at that time was only
available at PMG premises or those of its agents such
By 1939 Australia was 7th in the world teledensity
ranking, with all capital cities except Darwin connected
through a national network of 'voice grade' lines and
50% of services through automatic exchanges (significantly
better than the UK and most of continental Europe). It
has remained in the top ten and as the figures in the
Internet Metrics & Statistics guide
suggest currently has a greater per capita number of mobile
phones than the UK and US.
In New Zealand the first licensed non-telegraphy radio
broadcasts had occurred on 17 November 1921, with the
first station being launched in Wellington in July 1922.
The Broadcasting Act 1936, similar to Australia's
Reithian Australian Broadcasting Commission Act 1932,
established state broadcasting under a National Broadcasting
Service (NBS), with the government progressively acquiring
most private stations by late 1939.
By the mid-1940s debate in the Australian federal and
state parliaments (and in fora such as newspapers and
statements by industry organisations) suggests that telecommunications
within Australia was regarded as an essential national
service, an entitlement of all voters and outside many
commercial constraints (with demands for delivery to remote/regional
localities on a heavily subsidised basis).
In 1946 the federal government acquired AWA's shortwave
broadcasting assets, which formed the basis of the Overseas
Telecommunications Commission (OTC), a new statutory body
with responsibility for the nation's international telecommunications
Establishment of OTC preceded nationalisation
of Cable & Wireless in the UK during 1947 but reflected
action by Canada, New Zealand and other dominion countries
to take control of their non-domestic networks. OTC came
to have responsibility for satellite links, commencing
with INTELSAT II in 1966.
A public telex (teleprinter) service was available in
Australia from 1954. Transmissions of picturegrams between
PMG sites peaked at 6,280 in 1958, declining as individual
media organisations, news services such as Australian
Associated Press and a handful of industrial companies
such as BHP installed their own picturegram equipment.
Both the teleprinter and picturegram services were superseded
in the 1970s as 'wet' and later plain paper facsimile
machines became available. Those devices did not require
special training or a dedicated line.
In 1975 telecommunication regulation and delivery was
restructured, with PMG handling all postal services, OTC
retaining responsibility for international telecommunications
and the Australian Telecommunication Commission (trading
as Telecom Australia) being established to provide public
telecommunication services within Australia.
the emergence of data networks
As preceding paragraphs have suggested, throughout most
of Australia's history the dominant infrastructure model
was that of a publicly owned network centred on the transmission
of telegraphic and voice traffic rather than digital data.
Telephone handsets were owned by the network operator,
rather than by the subscriber, and in an echo of Henry
Ford's quip about the Model T came in any colour as long
as that was black.
From the 1960s, as mainframes became increasingly affordable
(whether on a purchased, leased or time-shared basis),
there was growing public and private sector demand for
domestic and international data exchange. In Australia
the Datel service, launched in 1969, featured modems leased
from the PMG for transmission of data at low speeds over
voice quality lines on a dial-up basis or at higher speeds
over dedicated lines that had better performance characteristics
but were only available between a few points. In 1973
around 2,500 modems were in use; that figure grew throughout
Declining infrastructure costs outpaced reductions in
establishment fees and ongoing maintenance charges by
the PMG, leading some major consumers such as the television
networks to explore loopholes in the legislation that
would enable creation of dedicated private networks (eg
high-capacity microwave links between stations and television
transmitters in NSW). Such moves were reflected in uptake
of private facsimile machines throughout the 1980s: by
1993 the number of machines in Australia had grown to
Faced with demands from domestic and commercial users
for lower prices and better access to the network (from
the early 1970s most Australian households expected to
have a fixed line phone) the monopoly network operator
in Australia and New Zealand adopted two strategies.
One was to roll out basic infrastructure across the nation,
minimising investment through technical compromises in
the location of exchanges and use of twisted pair connections
to households. Those compromises meant that much of the
network in place at 2003 was unsuitable for ADSL. Upgrading
to broadband was not
possible without significant investment (unlikely given
demands to raise revenue and profitability in a competitive
A second strategy was to acknowledge that, rhetoric aside,
all customers were not equal and that commercial customers
- in particular major organisations - both could and would
pay a premium for a higher quality of service based on
enhanced infrastructure. One example in the 1970s was
the PMG's Common User Data Network (CUDN), a packet-switching
scheme allowing simultaneous access by multiple users
for the exchange of information between computers and
featuring a primitive electronic mail system.