Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The story of Australian telecommunications ...

I can't fulfill the promise of the introduction but I can take you yo two really great bits of it. Both are based on items in the issue before the current one of the Telecommunications Journal of Australia.

The first is an excerpt from the obituary for Mel Ward. It tells a story quite concisely of an opportunity missed in Australian innivation and technology.

Mel moved to the Electronic Switching Division in 1967 and soon emerged as a key player in a major research project called the IST (Integrated Switching and Transmission) Project, very advanced for its time, which involved the investigation of two key ideas. The first was the concept of using software-controlled computers to perform the control functions (previously implemented by electromagnetic relays) in a telephone exchange, and the second was the idea of using digital solid-state devices to switch telephone traffic in a digital form. At the time, transmission systems carrying digital traffic were being introduced into the telephone network, but conversion of the traffic back to analogue form was necessary to perform the switching function in telephone exchanges. These two ideas underpinned the dawn of the era of computer-controlled digital telecommunications, an era which continues today although the early time division multiplexing technique of switching has by now, more than forty years later, been largely superseded by packet switching.

Mel’s participation in the IST Project took him and Margaret to Bell Telephone in Antwerp for about six months, starting in June 1968, where he worked with the designers of the new, specialised computers needed to perform switching control functions at high speeds. He returned to Australia as the key designer, together with the late Fred Symons and the late Andy Domjan, of the functional specifications of the IST switch being developed in the Laboratories. This experimental switch, the first computer-controlled digital telephone exchange in the world to handle live traffic, was implemented and finally installed in the Windsor exchange building in Melbourne in 1974, where it carried telephone traffic for many years thereafter.

The world's first "computer-controlled digital telephone exchange" was built and installed in Australia. The question is what happened next - why was the exchange not commercialised, why did Telecom then go on to buy the 10C and AXE exchanges?

Part of the answer probably lies in their experience at the same time of the Common User Data Network (or CUDN) which was an attempt to build a message switching network. (Message switching is more like packet switching than circuit switching but switches the whole message. Ultimately e-mail is a kind of message switching.)

I believe, however, that somewhere in the decision making there was a decision that basically said "We can't develop this we are too small." Yet we bought our switches from a firm in a similar sized economy.

The second is from a great article by the irrepressible Jock Given who delights in delivering short essays on Australian communications history. He relates the story of representatives from Marconi demonstrating wireless telegraphy to politiciand in 1906, and the development of the "National Wireless Network" (as he dubs it).

It is a classic tale of communication ambition, stark political reality and the interaction of the public and private sector. It is well summarised by this excerpt from the article;

Postmaster-General Chapman – the Stephen Conroy of the day – sent a message on behalf of the mainland press to the press of Tasmania: ‘No limits can be set to the beneficent influence of journalism now that the atmosphere has, at the bidding of genius, become its servant.’ (Marconi’s 1906) Chapman had visited wireless stations overseas, including in Italy. He thought people who asked ‘Will this pay?’ needed ‘to look at the matter from something more than the commercial aspect’.

Jock ends the piece (which was originally a speech celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Journal) with:

I could tell a long story about Australian telecommunications, but it may sound like a short
story told many times.

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est


Stuart Corner said...

Hi David - From Exchange 1990

At a press conference announcing Telecom's result, Exchange asked Telecom Managing Director, Mel Ward, for information on present digitisation levels and on future plans. He replied that present levels were "in the mid 20s (percentage)" and that plans were contained in the annual report. We were, however, unable to find this information in the report. It is believed the current penetration of digital lines is about 23 percent.

In 1986, a report by Henry Ergas for the then Department of Communications expressed concern at the level of digitisation of the Australian network, noting that it was lagging behind that of major industrialised countries. Ergas said Australia should aim to have 50 percent of all lines digital by the end of 1995.
- Stuart Corner

Stuart Corner said...

And From Exchange mid 1994
Telstra has announced that it has now passed the half way mark in its plan to convert the entire Australian public switched telephone network to digital operation. Achieving 50 percent has taken 15 years. The first digital exchange, an Ericsson Axe was installed in 1978, but under its Future Mode of Operation plan Telstra intends to have a completely digital network by 2000. About 400,000 lines are being converted to digital operation but Telstra says this rate will increase and that seven million digital lines will be installed over the next five years.