back to article Australia's proto-NBN now decaying in the desert

When The Reg followed October's World Solar Challenge from Darwin to Adelaide, we couldn't help but notice its route followed the route taken by what was arguably Australia's first large-scale nation-building project aimed at speeding the flow of information, the Overland Telegraph (OT). Like other networks of its day, the OT …


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  1. Anonymous Coward

    The trans-atlantic telegraph table was even more significant and expensive

    It failed twice before they finally managed to get it running… if business today had been financing it, we wouldn't have had it at all, and would be relying purely on shortwave radio for international contact.

    Don't get me wrong, shortwave can be fun, I managed to work a station in Fiji (I'm in Brisbane) using 100W of SSB and a ~6' long antenna… but trying to squeeze the world's communications on such links is infeasible as they'll never be able to carry the traffic of a submarine cable.

    1. JamesTQuirk

      Re: The trans-atlantic telegraph table was even more significant and expensive & IF

      I thought it was about having backup systems, in case of failure in one of other Links, maybe sometimes that could be useful in things like in war, natural disasters, I seem to remember Darwin being bombed once & "Tracy", if lines are down or broken, SAT/Radio may be it....

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: The trans-atlantic telegraph table was even more significant and expensive & IF

        Back-up system, yes… as your sole means of making contact when there are vastly superior options, no. Would you tolerate 300 baud Bell-103 modem links over a HF radio link when you could have cables linking two continents?

        In the above example, the multiple attempts was not about having a back-up cable. The first attempt failed, the cable broke. The second attempt failed when again, the cable broke.

        Now, could you imagine yourself trying to convince today's bankers that a third attempt is worthwhile when it had failed twice before?

        Yet, it's this project that was the forerunner of today's submarine cables that carry our Internet traffic. Being at the mercy of our ionosphere could have very well been our future had that third attempt not gone ahead.

  2. j.p


    i just love how clearly articulated the analogy/contradiction between 1870 and 2009 is made. the relatively slight justification for the couple-hundred-thousand-pound spend - though i suppose we don't truly know how that expenditure was justified, the tremendous effort of laying telegraph by hand and horse and cart through amazingly remote country... really clearly constructs the contrast to today's too hard/cant afford it/no point. thank you.

    the other part, the current day abandoned sites and the historical microwave construction detail and photographs adds a very cool historical context to trans continental communication tech. loved reading this.

    1. poopypants

      Re: analogous

      the relatively slight justification for the couple-hundred-thousand-pound spend

      I imagine that you would not want to wait several months to discover things like war breaking out in Europe. You could lose a lot of ships in the meantime.

  3. cracked


    If the “firm belief” is that people will require very high speed internet connections to get a fair go in life – not the same thing as faster access to cat videos – then the question becomes how much are you willing to spend, per head, to give everyone that go?

    If satellite is never going to provide truly high speed - low ping - connections, then an awful lot of money will need to be spent on between 3% and (guess) 9% of the population; far more per household than city dwellers.

    One of the problems being – because of the likely project duration – each election there is a saving to be made by scrapping such a (nation building) project, or continually scaling it back (as happened last election, to an extent, with FTTH).

    Like the telegraph, railways and a great many other Victorian era mega projects; they were done almost as much to display the might of the builder – for the love of doing the project – as they were to provide useful services. The point also has to be made that labour costs and conditions were somewhat lacking, compared to today.

    So whether old (or not so old, as with microwave) facilities are upgraded and utilised for 21st century comms isn't really the issue (either that is cheaper/better than an alternative, or it isn't) but whether successive governments want to stump up several billion – never mind a single billion to get it started - to connect 100% of the population, in a speed-time equivalent way.

    There will almost certainly never be a commercial reason to hook up the 3% - and probably the same for many of the 6% who live nearer civilisation, but not quite near enough – so either it's public money, or it's the best we could manage (sorry).

    Long term investment – chasing a dream because you should – is a difficult business. There are many ghost towns, in a very vague line between Adelaide and Alice Springs (and in many other places across the country) that were built for what once must have seemed a great idea - and may well, short term, have been just that - and/or through a lack of “foresight”. It will never be the future and in the future, people will very probably look back and marvel at how enterprising and industrious their forbears were (and had to be), when compared to themselves.

    1. JamesTQuirk

      Re: If

      It's a shame we don't plan for future, previous generations obviously thought about it, but now "Governments" seem content to allow private industry to decide on infrastructure spending, if gov wants to spend it's on their infrastructure .....

      1. NoHandleYet
        Big Brother

        Re: If

        Too right, if it was all left to private industry the Harbour Bridge would have been two lanes, one north bound and one south bound. Not enough money coming from that area? Bugger 'em let them do without.

  4. dpadamsoz

    Off topic: Those aren't wasp nests

    Loved the story and the illustrations, thanks and well done.

    The nests in your third picture belong to Fairy Martins, a kind of swallow. They don't need to be cleared out!

  5. david 12

    At least the author makes clear that he is equating connecting the country to the world news, with connecting your house to broadband TV. It's clear that many of the commentators here agree with that analysis.

  6. DownUndaRob

    Microwave still in use

    I can show you locations where the microwave links are still in daily use for telephone calls and can handle a blindingly fast 9600baud if you are lucky.

    1. JamesTQuirk

      Re: Microwave still in use

      Yeah, well thats it, use what u got, no hammer use a rock, but gentily ...

      I still got a now very old Chedai 8086 Laptop with 300 baud acostic coupler, in my pile of old PC's, if DrWho failed to stop the lastest alien invasion, I may have to use it to save the planet (if only PC left), so I may be able to interface it to slower speeds 9600 might be a bit quick ... NOT

      With 9600 baud, maybe, I saw in other Forum a post about Contiki OS, it is suppose to run on C64 and give it internet, I got 6 of them here, I could open a C64 internet cafe, But who would want to use it ? I'd probably make a lot selling coffee & donuts, while users waited for page to load ...

      Seriously thou, I think it's about the research, we stop playing with some things, too soon, not having tapped the full potential of a Technology, and maybe it is a dead end tech, but things you find there COULD be used in others areas of research. It took 10 years for the Commodore64 & Amiga Chipsets to used to full potential, by that time they were run other by a Windows truck, pity the system was better (Amiga). If the system is no good for "business" then it should be run & maintained by TAFE/UNI/CSIRO trainees, as practice&training in systems&procedures if nothing else, and to provide BACKUP links, my thoughts anyway ...

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Nation Building has become Nation Blinding

    The rhetoric and lack of planning of the current LNP government is appalling.

    But then, they do take their lead from the Dirty Digger.

    1. Fluffy Bunny

      Re: Nation Building has become Nation Blinding

      The immediate precursor to the NBN was the Howard Government's project to roll out broadband to remote areas. It was immediately seized upon by K.Rudd and turned into the current project to get cat videos to central city dwellers as fast as they can waste the money. Talk about lack of vision - the remote area dwellers are still waiting.

      1. Urh

        I'll give you lack of vision...

        Fluffy Bunny - Howard's plan was little more than a band-aid which would have done next to nothing to solve the much bigger problems of Australia's telecommunications sector (said problems were largely the result of Howard's grossly mismanaged privatisation of Telstra). Now we have Malcolm Turnbull attempting to fool the nation into thinking that it is more prudent to solve the problems of tomorrow with yesterday's technology (FTTN). Labor's NBN was the first time I've seen anything resembling vision from our politicians in years. That vision will probably be completely f***ing dead by the next election, and Australia will cement its place as a telecommunications backwater.

  8. PilbaraRunner

    Recycling old comms kit

    I remember working in the Pilbara back in the 1990s. The terrestrial TV reception in town was woeful even though it was coming from an ABC transmitter a few kms away. The reason? All the steel house roofs on new houses, required for cyclone proofing, were causing ghosted signals. The fix? I retrieved a pole from the old North West telegraph line, attached it to my house, put the TV antenna on top about 5 metres high, and voila, excellent reception. (I did get permission from the land owner to take the pole.) It was manufactured on Germany in the late 1880s and had survived rain and cyclones.

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