Telecom Australia


Like most advanced countries, after the Second World War Australia experienced a boom in growth. Demand for all sorts of consumer goods was high, and especially for homes for the ex-soldiers. With this came a growth in demand for telephone services. The telephone service in Australia was a Government-owned monopoly in the hands of the Post Master General's Department. The PMG proved totally unable to meet the demand due to the financial limits placed on it by the Government. Annual profits were returned to the Government instead of being ploughed back into the system. A long term plan to modernize the network had been put forward but was totally unfunded, and the old infrastructure was becoming less reliable and more expensive to maintain. Although some moves had been made to automate smaller country exchanges, the larger cities were still serviced by CB and magneto exchanges. Telephone numbers were in short supply, overhead lines and underground cables were limited, and political pressure was increasing for something to be done.

In 1975 the telephone division of the Post Master General's Department was split off into Telecom Australia. The postal services were also split off into Australia Post. Each of the new organizations was charged with meeting its customers' needs and paying its own way. Telecom was saddled with an $840 million debt for "the taxpayers contribution to the telephone system". For Telecom, this meant that its profits (and the telephone division was basically a profitable service) could now be used for expansion and paying off the debt. Further funds would be raised by issue of Telecom Bonds in the short term, price hikes at regular intervals, and profits from increased usage and new services in the long term.

Telecom Australia inherited a wide range of equipment and problems. Most of the telephones dated from the bakelite era, and many earlier wooden phones were still in use. Although a new locally-designed plastic phone, the 800 series, had been introduced, it was still in short supply. A plan had been evolved to convert all of Australia's telephone exchanges to automatic service. This would mean that thousands of manual exchanges would need to be updated to automatic, including many large CB exchanges in major towns. Literally millions of new phones would be needed over at least two decades. Many of the older special phones or modifications based on the older phones would need to have new equivalents developed. Experience in the United States had shown that customers wanted (and were prepared to pay for) phones with features that were not available in the standard phones. The field of Permitted Attachments, non-PMG items connected to the telephone network, was growing at an incredible rate. Most serious of all, the customer's attitude had changed. No longer were they content to be "subscribers" to a telephone service, they now had to be regarded as "Customers" and treated as such.

This required a change in attitude at the highest levels of the new Telecom. No longer could the system's development be driven only by technically-minded people who knew what was best - the customers' wishes had to be considered first. This led to a wider range of phones being produced to cater for the demand. Although Australian designers and engineers could produce a phone as good as any in the world, the sheer size of the job required that some phones be bought in. Because of the cost these phones now had to be sold outright, not included in the annual service rental.

Inevitably, the policies, practices and prices had their wins and losses. Getting the price right was always a problem. The technical differences between the Australian telephone system and those of other countries led to many customers bringing in their own phones and discovering too late that the phones did not work here. Some of the phones which Telecom bought in for sale here suffered from the same problems. They did not stay on the shelves for long. There were wins, too. The T200 phone was an extremely cheap, reliable phone which finally allowed one standard phone to be used all over Australia. It helped achieve the final goal of an Australia-wide automatic telephone service with national and international direct dialling for every customer before the turn of the century. The CT3 public telephone finally introduced STD and international dialling in a reliable, vandal-proof (almost) case.

It was a difficult task, but they did it. The Telecom engineers overcame the sheer distance problems involved, the low level of technology available, the lack of Australian manufacturing capacity, and the decades of neglect by successive Governments. Over two decades the network was made completely automatic and mostly underground. New technologies such as Digital Radio and Optical Fibre were developed and introduced. Solar power was used widely. The older phones were steadily replaced with the 800 series plastic phones, then again with the fully digital T200 series. All of Australia was given Subscriber Trunk Dialling and International dialling. The Public Telephone system was expanded and modernised, with full STD and ISD access. This was all done under a Universal Service policy. Every Australian could have (ultimately) the same standard of service for the same price. From a remote cattle station in the Outback to an inner-city worker, the charges were the same.

Australians quickly adapted to the better services and the profits started to roll in. These should have been invested in better service and development of new facilities like Mobile Phones, but at this point the Government started to levy a "dividend" on Telecom's profits. It must have been the only business in the world where the dividends were decided in advance and the charges were then raised to meet them. This slowed the development somewhat, but the work continued. Then, seeing the massive profits to be made, private companies started to lobby the Government for a share of the action. In the 1990s it was decided that Telecom should be privatized even though surveys indicated that the people who had paid for it, the telephone users, did not want this done. The first move was to "open up areas to competition". This meant that Telecom was forced to lease some of its capacity at less-than-economic rates to "competing" companies in the STD market. In a surprising show of customer loyalty , more than 80 per cent of customers stayed with Telecom as exchanges were opened up to competition. In some areas polls were taken to try to convince more people to change, but the figures generally held firm.

In spite of this, privatization was to go ahead. Telecom Australia was reconstituted as Telstra, and has been 49% privatized so far. The current Government is pushing ahead to offload the rest in 2006 in spite of serious majority electoral opposition.

For the collector, Telecom phones fall into four major groups:

Obsolete phones: the earlier phones which had since been superseded by more up to date models, but which were still in service until they either broke down or sufficient replacement phones became available.

Rental phones: the basic home or business phone, included in the annual rental for the service. It was included on the basis that at any given time there should be at least one working phone available to a customer, no matter what other phones they had provided for themselves. These are the 800 series, the Ericofon and the T200.

Premium phones; mostly the Decorator range of styles. These were purchased phones designed to offer the customer a choice of styles and models not available on the basic phone. Features such as handsfree calling, built-in memory, antique styling - these all came at a price.

Special purpose phones: These included specialised and experimental units like the Computerphone and Multicom.

For space reasons I have left out PABXs, Commanders, and switchboards. The section on payphones could be expanded as more information becomes available.

To Basic Rental Phones

To Obsolete Phones

To 800 Series

To Other 800s

To Ericofon

To WallFone

To TouchFone

To Multicom

To Decorator Phones

To Feature Phones

To ComputerPhone

To T200

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