Having a chat over a cuppa may be a very Australian thing to do. But as times change and technology keeps advancing, we now have more options than ever before. When it comes to keeping in touch, we really are spoiled for choice.
But how did we get here?
The unofficial postie was your neighbour
In 1788, Australia started receiving permanent European settlers. But without electricity, their communication system consisted of hand-written letters that were carried by horses, carts, and human hands to get around the country. Before there was an official postal service, mail was usually passed between transporters, storekeepers and settlers. These arrangements depended heavily on trust between the people involved. It was once common for neighbours to travel a fair bit out of their way to deliver their neighbours' mail. With the advent of the steam engine, mail trains became a reality. But if a letter had to go to another country, it could take up to eight months to get there by ship. Not exactly an easy way to invite a friend over for a cuppa!
Before sophisticated microphones and speakers, messages were sent electronically using Morse code via the telegraph. This simple device transmits and receives electrical signals using an open switch, a basic speaker, and a conducting wire. Australia picked up on this technology in the mid-1800s. By the mid-1860s, all regional centres in the south-east of the country were connected to this new communications network.
After Sturt’s crossing of the Northern Territory in 1872, the telegraph quickly followed. Sir Charles Todd, a leading electrical engineer of the time, lead the construction project that saw a telegraph line spread from the colony of South Australia through to Darwin, straight through the middle of the continent. This line then connected with a submarine cable from Java to open up Australia’s first international telecommunications system.
It seems that as a nation, we became quite reliant on this form of communication, with records showing that in the late 1890s, Australians sent more telegraphs per person than any other nation in the world.
The first telephones
While the telegraph remained quite popular at the time, the first public telephone exchange was built in Sydney in 1882.
Public phones were more popular than the landlines handsets you can now find in almost every home. The technology at the time was quite basic by today’s standards. The handsets were only made up of a few components:
A switch that goes under the handset. This physically connects the phone to the copper wire network. When you pick up the receiver, the switch mechanism touches the copper wire connection. When your replace the handset, the switch disconnects the physical connection.
A basic microphone that sits in the mouthpiece. In the past, this would have been as simple as carbon granules compressed between two thin metal plates. Sound waves from your voice compress and decompress the granules, changing the resistance and modulating the current the microphone would send down the line.
A speaker that goes in the earpiece. This is usually a small 8-ohm speaker of some sort that converts incoming electrical pulses from the incoming line into sound.
When you picked up the handset on these phones, the switch would open a connection to the exchange. There, an operator would ask you the number you wished to reach, then physically connect your line into the number you had requested.
Every phone call needed a dedicated set of wires connecting one end of the call to the other. For long distance phone calls, you may have had to go through several switches to connect your phone directly to another phone.
This made personal communication available to the average Australian. People would line up for hours at times to use the public phones. As demand grew, more and more local telephone exchanges were built and by 1900, 30,000 exchanges were located around the country.
By 1987, all areas in Australia - no matter how remote - had access to basic telephone services.
Over time, pulse dialing removes the need for human switchboards. Pulse dialing sends electrical pulses down the line. These pulses match the number you dial, except for the number zero, which is ten pulses. In the exchange, a mechanical rotor arm responds to the pulses by connecting the dialling line to the number entered.
Today, landlines use circuit switching to achieve the same results. When you dial a number, your phone sends tones down the copper line to your telephone carrier’s exchange. The automated exchange then routes your call through a switch to the number you’re calling. The continual connection still exists, but much of the technology has been made more efficient. While there are still speakers and microphones and copper wires involved, your voice gets digitised by your telephone carrier and may be sent through fiber-optic cables for a faster, lag free and cost-effective calling experience.
In 1981, the domestic satellite system AUSSAT is launched, ensuring nation-wide availability of international telecommunication services.
The same year, Telecom launches the first public mobile phone system (MTS). This service is not cellular like modern mobiles, but is fully automatic and relies on the towers to ping the mobiles for location. The boot-mounted units have a handset and cradle in the cabin and cost $4,990 to buy or $1,000 per annum to lease. The fully automatic mobile telephone service uses 120 radio channels in the 500 mHz band and has a the capacity to support 4,000 customers.
In 1993, Telstra (formerly Telecom) officially launches the new digital (GSM) network, and the MTS Phone System for mobiles is phased out. There are just 635,000 analogue mobiles in Australia, and less than 4% of people have one.
By 1994, Australia has the fourth highest mobile penetration per capita in the world, with over one million analogue mobile phone connections. By 1995 there were an estimated 2.25 million mobile subscribers.
In 2001, the number of mobiles phones in Australia exceeds the number of wired access lines. The very next year, there are 12 million Australian mobile services connected. By 2003, 3G mobile networks are giving Aussies access to live mobile broadband. This means that over 96 per cent of the population can experience streaming mobile TV, full length audio and video music tracks, multiplayer games, face to face video calls and more.
The next iteration in mobile connectivity - 4G - is here, providing faster connections and better transitions when connecting between towers. And 5G is hot on it’s heels. Promising even faster speeds, and even efficiency gains like lower battery usage, 5G mobile technology could be a real game-changer for the nation. While there are currently no official standards set for 5G capabilities, some expertes expect it to start rolling out by 2020.
We’ve covered some serious challenges
Looking back, it’s amazing to see the distance we’ve covered. This isn’t just impressive in terms of speed - it’s in the face of some serious challenges.
Like the title of Geoffrey Blainey’s book “The Tyranny of Distance” suggests, the largest hurdle Australians have to overcome is just how large we are as a country - not to mention how far away we are from the rest of the world.
Put simply, Australia is huge country. We’ve got over seven and a half million square kilometres of land. And a population of just 24 million. Stats say that this makes us the third-least populous country in the world by area, coming up just behind Mongolia and Namibia. And with a few small calculations, we can show that every square kilometre in this country could have up to four people in it - and we’d still have space to share.
Yet today we have one of the highest rates of mobile phone ownership in the world. We have the NBN rolling out across the country. And we have Sky Muster satellite services reaching where cables can’t.
That’s a huge distance we’ve managed to cover. What’s next?