MOBILE AND PORTABLE MEDIA
Like the telegraph before it, the telephone was embraced by Australians as an indispensable form of communication in a dispersed nation, as well as providing overseas telecommunications.
The first commercial automatic mobile phone service was introduced by Telecom Australia in 1981 (and closed down in 1991), thus making the telephone portable. It was followed in 1987 by the first cellular mobile phone service, Telecom’s Advanced Mobile Phone System (AMPS)—a first-generation analogue service. Initially, the federal government reserved mobile service for the monopoly carrier, following an AUSTEL inquiry. For a brief period, Australian policy-makers also considered Public Access Cordless Services (PACTS) as a major alternative to cellular mobile, but enthusiasm waned (apart from what become a very significant market for cordless landline phones).
In 1992, Optus was awarded a licence for its analogue service, with Vodafone becoming the third carrier, launching its second-generation (2G) GSM digital network in 1993. GSM was the government-mandated standard, but lacked the geographical range of AMPS transmitters in country areas. Telstra briefly offered a service based on the other main 2G standard, CDMA, which gave the government cover for the 2000 decommissioning of AMPS. Hong Kong-based Hutchinson Telecommunications entered the fray, launching its third generation (3G) mobile service in 2003. Many customers also purchased mobile products from service providers, or virtual mobile carriers such as Virgin Mobile.
In its early days, the cost of mobile handsets, as well as call charges, ensured that the first customers were business users, and wealthy early adopters wanting the latest technology. As user experimentation with mobile phones grew, technology improved, networks were extended and prices fell, the mobile phone found novel niches in small business—with ‘tradies’ (tradespeople), for instance, as well as for household and personal use.
Typically installed in vehicles, early mobile phones were prohibitively heavy. As handsets become smaller and lighter, mobiles become portable media carried in handbags, briefcases and pockets. Their emerging social, personal and cultural uses—for time-keeping and scheduling, adornment, accessorising and fashion, and later for media and entertainment—recalled earlier histories of portable media, including the wristwatch, alarm clock, car radio, transistor radio, Sony Walkman, pager and personal organiser.
By the mid-1990s, the mobile phone had become an accepted part of Australian life, despite the difficulties providing ubiquitous coverage, especially in remote and rural areas. The Howard Coalition government initiated a blackspot program to gradually extend coverage to country areas, something that continues to the present day.
From the early 2000s, mobiles had become a fixture in the media landscape. Text messaging, a phenomenon in Australian youth culture in the late 1990s, served as the long-awaited back-channel for interactive audience participation, especially with reality television and music video formats. Mobile data premium services took over from telephone information services. Popular early on, mobile music become a significant revenue stream with smartphones such as Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android. Games also became very popular on mobiles, including new kinds of mobile games such as pervasive reality gaming, casual games and social games (popular with Facebook on mobiles).
In the smartphone era, mobiles became a key way of accessing the internet for millions of Australian users. Not only did users browse websites and access email, they especially availed themselves of the many new kinds of software (‘apps’) available. By this stage, few mobile phones were manufactured or designed in Australia (modifications for disabled and older users being an exception). However, Australian software developers gained a share of the international as well as national markets through the ‘apps’ ecosystem. Mobile apps become an important part of everyday media, with users expecting business, service providers and community organisations alike to have these as well as a website. New kinds of providers entered the mobile media sector, such as health apps designers.
Along with smartphones came a range of mobile computing devices, such as tablet computers that jostled with laptop computers to be the portable device of choice. Tablets like the iPad saw the stalled project of mobile television finally become a reality, and also made the long awaited e-book a popular consumer phenomenon.
Yet issues such as the unfathomably high cost of international roaming, the rise of mobiles as an entertainment medium for infants and very young children, etiquette worries and fears of social disconnection remained controversial topics.
Government policy lagged behind, with its prime focus on traditional competition and consumer issues. Australia was not alone internationally in its tardy approach to content regulation and censorship on mobile devices. Important issues such as texting and young people’s circulation of erotic images via mobiles were handled by inappropriate state laws devised to address child abuse. Tellingly, for its first formative years, the National Broadband Network was focused on fixed internet rather than offering an integrated vision that captured the reality that, for many Australia consumers much of the time, the internet was a mobile experience.
From 2010, mobile media were less standalone device, and rather had become a hybrid, multimedia form. Fourth- and fifth-generation mobile technologies were premised on the crossover of mobile, internet and next-generation (Next G) networks. The gap between data-intensive mobiles and wearable computing devices (such as Google Glass) narrowed dramatically. With location-based GPS, mobile, mapping and sensor technologies, mobiles housed new forms of ‘locative media’, posing a range of privacy, intellectual property and cultural policy issues.
REFs: G. Goggin, ‘Notes on the History of the Mobile Phone in Australia’, Southern Review: Communication, Politics and Culture, 38(3) (2006) and ‘Making the Australian Mobile in the 1990s: Creating Markets, Choosing Technologies’, MIA, 129 (2008).