Internet in Australia — the early years
Date:2019-11-06number of visits:589 time

Here are some highlights from the early years of the Internet in Australia, as reported in Exchange.

Last night, 31 October I had the pleasure of attending a dinner organised by the former head of the Australian Internet Industry Association Peter Coroneos to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the arrival of the Internet in Australia. (Thanks very much Peter!)

The occasion prompted me to explore my own archive to see how the Internet in Australia had evolved  in its early years.

I started my weekly telecoms newsletter Exchange in April 1989, predating the Internet’s arrival on our shores, so equipped with a complete online archive and Foxtrot Pro I went digging.

The first real reference was in mid 1991 when I reported:

The capacity of international satellite links between the Australian Academic and Research Network (AARNet) and the US-based Internet has quadrupled since the service started last May. AARNet’s OTC Skystream service increased last month from 128 kilobits/sec to 256 kilobits/sec. When AARNet was commissioned in May 1990, this link operated at 56 kilobits/sec. 

Internet US claims 750K users

The next, in January 1993, showed clearly what a dominant Internet use case would be.

Internet, the network linking US academic institutions, is the largest computer network in the world with some 750,000 users. But, according to a report in The West Australian, the interests of some of these users are far from academic. DEC Network Systems Laboratory, a Californian survey group, noted that of the 1500 categories of information available on Internet, three of its sex bulletin boards were among the top ten most viewed computer files in the world.

My first reference to the Internet as a service available to the general public came in February 1993.

Within a month it should be possible to access France Telecom’s videotex system, Teletel, over the Internet by dialling a Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane phone number. The facility is being made available as a result of interest shown by a number of French people, French organisations and francophiles at seminars sponsored by the French Government late last year to promote Teletel.

There was nothing much further until January 1994, when I reported AARNet’s Internet usage doubling every nine months, and made reference to Internet access being available to the general public.

Then momentum picked up rapidly. In May 1994 I wrote:

The Australian Science and Technology Council (Astec) says that access to the Internet is essential for Australian government, business and schools as well as the academic community.  In its draft report on Australia’s future requirements for research networks, it recommends that universities should make Internet access available to students … and] the Internet should be used to disseminate government information.

AARNet’s Internet monopoly challenged

AARNet’s control of Internet access was soon starting to grate. This in June 1994.

A consortium of Hong Kong and Australian investors is developing a proposal to establish a second Internet network in Australia to capitalise on the high demand growth for Internet services. The consortium would also look at the possibility of taking equity in Aarnet if that opportunity presented itself. 

Exchange understands that the consortium is considering leasing a high-bandwidth line to the US and is seeking to attract existing Internet users who are frustrated by the lack of bandwidth and transmission capacity on the Aarnet service.

It would also aggressively compete for a share of the growth in Internet usage in Australia, estimated to be doubling every eight to nine months.

The consortium has begun a feasibility study into the project, looking at projected market demand, network provisioning and a site to locate its Australian headquarters. It is hoping to capitalise on bidding between state governments to secure its investment.

Telstra expected Internet disruption

And that same month, some prescience from Telstra (or Telecom as it then was).

Telecom’s revenues from basic telephony will fall to almost zero in the future and the corporation is seeking to replace them with revenues from Internet, video telephony and pay television, according to Telecom group managing director network and technology, Doug Campbell.

 Campbell told The Telecommunication Society of Australia in Sydney on 24 June that “I can see the amount of revenue from basic telephony getting very low and almost to zero. We have to rethink our operations”.

 He said Telecom was about to undergo a “paradigm shift in bandwidth, products and pricing” and said that its network would have to offer “full service” in pay television and interactivity to remain profitable.

Publishing tipped to go online

This was followed by warnings of other disruptions, in September 1994.

A national roundtable on electronic publishing held in Canberra. The meeting heard that, for certain types of specialist publications, electronic publishing over the Internet was already starting to take over from the traditional printed book or journal. The report quoted Eric Wainwright, deputy director general of the National Library of Australia, saying that “Within a short period, publishing on the Internet will be the primary form of distribution for scholarly writings to many of their users”

Launch of Telstra’s ISP

Then, in November 1994 when Telstra launched its Internet access service the Internet could well and truly be said to have arrived.

Telstra and Microsoft have announced a 50/50 joint venture company, On Australia, to provide interactive online messaging, information and transaction services, including internet access, to Australia’s PC users.

The core of the new service will be The Microsoft Network, announced in the US by Microsoft CEO Bill Gates the day before the On Australia launch. The Microsoft Network will be a two part system: Microsoft server software running on a host computer and personal computer software which will be bundled with Windows ’95, to be released next year. Microsoft says the aim of the product is to make online communication almost transparent to users.

Remember the Information Superhighway?

In that article I noted

Launch of The Microsoft Network comes at a time when interest in online services, and in particular the Internet, is booming. Compuserve, which claims to be the world’s largest online information service with two million users, is signing new members at 80,000 per month and attributes the growth to general interest in Internet and the information superhighway.”

Remember ‘The Information Superhighway’? In the early nineties there was much debate about exactly what this was, and why we might need it. The Internet was just one contender. In July 1994 I wrote:

 Internet aficionados apparently sport bumper stickers proclaiming “Information Superhighway: it’s the Internet.

 The Information Superhighway deserves its own exercise in reminiscing. Watch this space!

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