More than anything else, telecommunications has dramatically transformed Australia, with its ‘magnificent distances’ (Prime Minister Alfred Deakin’s phrase) and its isolation from the rest of the world; it has also played a pervasive a role in the modernisation of Australian society. Across two centuries, the evolving technologies of telecommunications have sustained the growth and diversification of the Australian media and, through changing organisations, participated in the development and performance of diverse new media forms.
For the first half of the 19th century, communication from, to and within the Australian colonies was carried entirely by mail. The first post office was established at Circular Quay in Sydney in 1809, under Isaac Nichols, a former convict who boarded ships to collect the mail, with addressees’ names being published in the Sydney Gazette and New South Advertiser.
By 1850, communication by post had fostered the economic growth of the colonies. In 1853, a young Canadian entrepreneur, Samuel McGowan—a former student of Professor Samuel Morse, who had managed the New York–Buffalo line—arrived in Melbourne equipped with sets of Morse instruments, batteries and insulators to launch telegraph technology in Australia. ‘To us, old Colonists who have left Britain years ago,’ declared the Melbourne Argus, it is ‘the most perfect of modern inventions ... Let us set about electric telegraphy at once’.
Initiated in Melbourne in 1854, telegraphy was taken up in South Australia in 1856, Tasmania in 1857, New South Wales in 1858, Queensland in 1861 and Western Australia—where Australia’s only convict-constructed telegraph was erected—in 1859. Started partly by private enterprise, all telegraph lines were quickly owned by government and maintained by the separate colonial departments of electric telegraphy. Tasmania was connected with the mainland in 1859 by a cable from Cape Otway, Victoria, laid across Bass Strait to Circular Head to join the Hobart–Launceston line, but it proved erratic, isolating that colony from telegraphic communication with mainland Australia until the advent of a second cable in 1869.
In 1872, the Overland Telegraph Line from Adelaide to Darwin linked Australia’s spreading lines to the Java cable connection and the world. Three years later, in 1877, the East–West Telegraph Line, edging its way from Albury, Western Australia via transmitter stations around the Great Australian Bight, joined South Australian telegraphy and the eastern colonies at Eucla.
Australians took to the telegraph like ducks to water. It rapidly became a vital instrument of government, business and the law, issuing orders, transferring public servants, conveying legal judgments and directives, and tracking bushrangers and criminals. In business, the Morse code tapped out prosperity and wealth, linking trade and commerce, connecting investors with markets, gold diggers with buyers and pastoralists with agents.
Yet nowhere was the effect of the telegraph more evident than in the business of communication itself. As lines spread, newspapers began to publish a few inches daily—by-lined ‘By Electric Telegraph’—that presented information from neighbouring colonies, shipping movements, the price of goods, reports from parliament and sport. Until the 1870s, overseas news was telegraphed from Adelaide as the first point of shipping entry to the eastern colonies, exciting deep rivalry between reporters from Sydney and Melbourne newspapers for command of the single line to the eastern colonies. From 1877 to 1887, the adoption of new telegraph technology that increased transmission speeds from four to 40 words per minute enabled metropolitan newspapers to publish an average of 700 words of overseas news daily.
The second major telecommunication technology to bridge distance, the telephone, reached Australia from America in the late 1870s. Telephone exchanges were installed in Melbourne and Brisbane in 1880, Sydney in 1882, Hobart and Adelaide in 1883 and Perth in 1887, and in country towns in association with colonial post offices by the late 1880s. In 1901, some 33,000 telephones were ringing in Australia. The telephone exchange, as one Melbourne writer noted, was the ‘cerebellum of the social and commercial system of the busy city incessantly receiving and transmitting from and to every portion of the vital organism’.
From 1907, trunk connections accelerated press, business and government operations. While the technically skilled, well-educated telegraphists employed in city, suburb and lonely repeater stations had furnished the new manpower of telegraphy, telephony swiftly became the preserve of women in metropolitan and suburban exchanges, who doubled as postmistresses in rural areas. Their presence influenced the domestic and social adoption of the telephone, and gave it critical national spread.
The centralisation at Federation in 1901 of six colonial ‘electric telegraph departments’ into the Commonwealth Postmaster-General’s Department (the PMG) created an institutional goliath. Employing 90 per cent of Commonwealth government human resources, and charged with the exclusive construction and management of the changing telecommunications demands of a vast and diverse continent, it gave institutional expression to the unique importance of telecommunications in Australia. Embracing posts, telegraphs and telephones, ‘and other like services’, the Post and Telegraph Bill of February 1901 conferred a monopoly that, in the words of the initiating PMG, Senator James Drake, ‘enables us to look ahead; take advantage of every innovation, and adapt it to the benefit of the public’. It was a concept of steadily extending and upgrading service that underlay national telecommunications policy for more than 80 years.
Australia adopted wireless telegraphy in 1909. By 1914, a total of 14 wireless stations dotted the coastline. In 1918, Australia was in direct wireless communication with Britain via wireless telegraphy, and in 1922 the Commonwealth government participated in a partnership with Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Ltd to support the construction and operation of direct wireless telegraphy services between Australia and Britain that opened in 1927 and extended to Canada in 1928. Under (Sir) H.P. Brown, the PMG shaped a national broadcasting policy as a ‘dual system’ of national and commercial licensed channels operating within the international medium wave, while the PMG became responsible for the installation, operation and maintenance of the complete servicing of a national system.
Beam wireless telephone connection was established between Australia and Britain in 1930, extending swiftly to other countries. In 1930, Western Australia was joined to the eastern states by landline telephony and the telephone voice was heard at last across the broad girth of the continent. World War II put significant pressure on carrier-wave telegraph technology, prompting crucial local production and innovative approaches to meet General Douglas MacArthur’s communication demands. Notably in 1943, an old 1909 Bass Strait cable was hauled from its bed, shipped to New Guinea and laid from the village of Delena 145 kilometres west of Port Moresby to form a communication link to Cape York in a critical holding operation in the northward communication drive.
Post-war Australia entered a dynamic new telecommunication era that spanned developments in automatic telephony and telegraphy, underground coaxial cables, international radio telephony, television, microwave radio, transistors and other solid-state devices, and a national commitment to progressive automation and carrier telephone systems. In 1946, the management of Australia’s overseas telecommunications was transferred to a new statutory authority, the Overseas Telecommunication Commission (OTC). As telephony became a prime mover, it—together with digitalisation—increasingly challenged telegraph use.
Entering Australia’s communications network in 1954, telex progressively transformed the old teleprinter mode of message delivery through the introduction of manually operated telex exchanges that linked teleprinter terminals and receivers in capital cities. Four years later, OTC opened an overseas telex service with the direct exchange of printed correspondence with similarly equipped offices in Australia and abroad. Fully automated by 1966, it became the precursor of the new, automatically linked information society that sounded the death-knell for Morse code.
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼Delay and political hesitation marked the introduction of television in Australia. Following a Royal Commission on Television in 1953, the Broadcasting and Television Act 1956 provided for a dual national (ABC) and commercial television service, similar to radio broadcasting, which began in September 1956. By 1960, television had reached all capital cities and 94 per cent of all homes had a television set by 1975, when colour was introduced.
As the speed of communication mounted, underground coaxial cables, with their high-quality multiple communication circuits and microwave relay systems, girdled the continent while television towers and transmitting stations—the new ‘superhighway of the sky’—signalled change in the landscape and life of Australia. Parliament’s partition of the PMG into two separate statutory bodies, the Australian Telecommunications Commission (Telecom Australia) and the Australian Postal Commission (Australia Post), in July 1975 was a major institutional change. The reconstitution of Australia’s telecommunication network under Telecom was seen as a ‘flash-point of transformation’, in which business management, responsibility to a commission of seven for long-term policy and a managing director replacing the Director-General were central. Telecom retained the exclusive right to install, maintain and operate domestic telecommunications infrastructure and continue in its regulatory function of authorising others to attach lines and equipment to the telecommunications system, but it would face increasing pressure in the following decade to open the system to competition. The structural division between domestic and international telecommunications remained, with OTC as the Overseas Telecommunications Corporation endowed with exclusive right to install, maintain and operate international cable and satellite facilities between Australia and other countries.
Pressure for a geostationary domestic satellite, DOMSAT, mounted through the 1970s. Australia’s land network had been joined by OTC’s earth station at Carnarvon, Western Australia in 1966 (and another at Moree, NSW in 1968) via INTELSAT satellites to the United States, Canada and Japan. In 1970 OTC’s earth station at Ceduna, South Australia, transmitting to the Indian INTELSAT satellites, connected Australia’s television networks to Asia, Africa, Britain and Europe. But the challenge of ‘dead’ communication areas in Australia, and of extending telephony to remote, environmentally inhospitable regions, focused the concept of a domestic satellite. An entirely new telecommunications form, it would alter the way television was distributed, as well as how telephone calls were transmitted, remote regions connected and business information carried globally.
In 1985, Aussat Pty Ltd, a company owned jointly by the Commonwealth government and Telecom, was established to operate the national satellite telecommunications system and provide enhanced domestic business communication links and broadcasting services to remote Australia. The first two domestic satellites were launched in 1985. In 1987, Telecom launched its first cellular mobile phone, with rapid uptake. Under Aussat, Australia’s satellite footprint embraced Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guineas and the south-west Pacific, but the company’s mounting debt forced its sale in 1991 to the private company Optus Communications.
Aussat’s financial decline proved to be the trigger for greater competition in Australian telecommunications. Under the Telecommunications Act 1989, Telecom retained its monopoly on fixed telephony, but AUSTEL, the Australian Telecommunications Authority, was introduced as an independent regulator charged with responsibility for protecting carrier rights, protecting competitors from unfair competition and protecting consumers. In 1991, Optus was licensed to become the second tele- communications carrier, with access to the fixed telecommunications regime, while retaining its satellite control. The amalgamation by a Labor government of Telecom and OTC in 1992 to form Telstra ushered in a transformative period in Australian telecommunications.
Across its history, a cornucopia of advanced new telecommunication technologies and services has endowed the Australian people with rapidly changing, accelerating styles and increasingly powerful tools of communication. High standards of telephone technology, digital techniques, integrated circuits, optical fibres, ‘intelligent terminals’, videotex and three domestic satellites with a large component of earth stations have been added to the long-line terrestrial and microwave systems.
Australia’s connection to the global internet was made in 1989, with its take-up second only to that in the United States. From telegraph to the internet, Australians have emerged as early and rapid adopters of new media and communication technologies, with a strong appetite for telecommunication advance, sustained through government ownership into the early 1990s. In the 21st century, the infrastructure of a new telecommunication revolution, high-speed national broadband, moves outwards across the nation.
REF: A. Moyal, Clear Across Australia (1984).