Sydney to Melbourne cable turns 50 years old


news Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has highlighted the fact that yesterday, April 9, marked the 50th anniversary of the landmark opening of the coaxial telecommunications cable between Sydney and Melbourne, delivering a new era in telecommunications in Australia. Conroy has additionally likened the project’s vision to that of the National Broadband Network.

The cable was officially declared open when the then Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, made an interstate direct dial call on April 9 in 1962. The coaxial cable enabled a caller to dial numbers at exchanges on the other end of the trunk lines, rather than needing an operator to make the connection. Though fibre-optic cable has largely replaced coaxial cables in Australia’s backhaul network, including the Sydney-Melbourne link, coaxial cables are still used to connect some customers to the exchange.

Conroy paid tribute to the men and women who worked on the project 50 years ago to make this crucial link in Australia’s telecommunications infrastructure a reality. A media release from the Senator’s office observed that in 1957, when the telephone system was becoming overloaded, the Government recognised the need for new infrastructure. The options considered at the time included radio transmission, but in the end it was decided to install a six-tube coaxial cable taking into account future needs.

The coaxial cable infrastructure scored over other options because it supported the introduction of subscriber trunk dialling between cities and could transmit television signals as well. Senator Conroy stated: “It really was revolutionary technology; it took five years to build and exemplified a time when both sides of politics had the vision to plan for the future when it came to building the infrastructure our nation needs.”

Senator Conroy noted with regret that the far-sighted approach Sir Robert Menzies had adopted – to build infrastructure for the next fifty years – has presently been replaced by a Liberal National Party that wants, Conroy claimed, to say ‘no’ not just to Labor’s flagship National Broadband Network (NBN), but also to the prosperity and economic opportunities of the future that Labor claims will come with it. Senator Conroy said: “It’s time for the Opposition to recognise that cobbled together copper isn’t going to meet the Australian economy’s need for broadband over the next ten, twenty, thirty years, and embrace the NBN.”

Looking back in time, the coaxial telecommunications cable supported the simultaneous live broadcast of the 5th Test of the 1962-63 Ashes series to Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne – a major achievement in Australian television history. In 1965, the cable was also used for interstate live split-screen link-ups between Graham Kennedy’s In Melbourne Tonight and Don Lane’s Sydney Tonight.

Information on the use of the cable by ABC for television broadcast reveals that it was in 1967 that the first Australian TV soap, ‘Bellbird’, was premiered by the company. The first colour news bulletin was read by Jim Dibble on March 1, 1975 on ABC. By 1985, the launch of Aussat enabled ABC programs to be broadcast to remote parts of Australia.

According to Telstra’s telecommunications history timeline, following the invention of the telephone in 1876 by Alexander Graham Bell, several long-distance transmission experiments were successfully conducted in Australia two years later in 1878, at distances of up to 400 km. By 1883, exchanges were set up in Adelaide and Hobart; the Perth exchange opened in 1887. In August 1964, again under Prime Minister Robert Menzies, Australia became part of the International Telecommunications Satellite Consortium (INTELSAT) which was established to develop a global system of commercial satellite links.

Further historical information:

There is absolutely no doubt that Conroy is using an important (if overlooked by the vast majority of the population) historical anniversary here to make a political point about the current National Broadband Network project. That is the transparent aim of his media release issued late last week (embargoed for Monday morning), and it’s something that Labor has done consistently with the NBN, likening the project to the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme.

However I don’t disagree with what Conroy has written here — just because this is a politicised use of history doesn’t mean it’s an illegitimate one. Conroy is completely right: The construction of Australia’s telecommunications infrastructure in the form of copper cable to houses and backhaul links between major cities was a visionary accomplishment and one that has served the nation well over the years. The construction of the NBN will be a similarly visionary accomplishment, and I, and many other people, are disappointed by the lack of vision which various conservative political figures have shown regarding it.

The NBN has its flaws; among them the creation of a new government monopoly and the potential weakening of competition in Australia’s telecommunications landscape. However, Labor’s NBN strategy has never lacked vision. In fact, it is the sort of project which only comes around once every few generations. The Coalition does not yet have anything to stack up against that level of ambition.

Opinion/analysis by Renai LeMay


  1. The options considered at the time included radio transmission, but in the end it was decided to install a six-tube coaxial cable taking into account future needs.

    50 years later and we’re still having the debate over wireless versus physical media.


    • We are having the debate w.r.t. LAST-MILE comms inside cities that are ALREADY well supplied with high bandwidth intercity backhaul fiber.

      How many times can people continue to conflate this, when it has already been explained to death?

  2. I remember that Graham Kennedy’s, In Melbourne Tonight, had a live cross to the Don Lane show in Sydney. That was very exiting for the 60’s.

    • Wow, that makes you pretty old then hey? But in all seriousness, that’s a pretty cool thing.

      All I get to tell my son of 11 months is that I WAS BORN BEFORE THE INTERNETS. I’m hoping it will blow his mind.

  3. Much like the internet, the coaxial telecommunications cable between Sydney and Melbourne is a series of tubes.

  4. I like this sort of stuff.

    Its been a few years since an update was written on the history of Australia’s telecom infrastructure, although Fletcher’s Wired Brown Land was a good snap-shot of a particular period in time. The best one I know of is still Clear Across Australia, by Ann Moyal.

    I reckon there will be a race on, post NBN, to write the next definitive text.

    On the topic of history, I had a bit of fun last year with a testimony Dr Alexander Graham Bell gave to the 1910 Royal Commission on the Australian telecom system. Some curious similarities with discussion in this day and age, 100 years later:

  5. You NBN kiddies and gamers just want your fast internet! How are you all so blind!

    5 years to build was too long.

    They only built it between Sydney and Melbourne, they were clearly deploying to 2 “have” cities, and ignoring all the coax black-spots of the country towns and real aussie battlers.

    What they should have implemented was Telegragh-to-the-Node instead of exchange to exchange connectivity, deployment time would have been 1.5 years not 5, not to mention they shouldn’t be picking any winners. I mean, it was replaced before the cable was at End of Life! Clear proof it was a wasteful government wasting money on yet another wastey waste .. err internet err tax.

    Not to mention the only use-case anyone can talk about for this so-called useful intrastructure is Television and Cricket! What a waste!

    • Excellent points! Not to mention that coax cable is yesterday’s technology. I mean, why would we be celebrating that?

      Never look back! Only look forward! Onward, to the glorious future of government re-purchased copper tails! A node on every corner, a chicken in every pot!

      What’s the rule for success again? Buy expensive (copper, from Telstra) and sell cheap (fibre, back to Telstra), isn’t it?

  6. ” The NBN has its flaws; among them the creation of a new government monopoly and the potential weakening of competition in Australia’s telecommunications landscape. ”

    Aren’t these points really the main reason the Opposition has issue with the NBN?

    I am asking out of clarification here because I’m confused by the entire debate (neither Labor nor the Opposition have done a good job presenting their case in my opinion).

    I’m pro-NBN. I’m also pro proper planning, implementation, and management.

    • “Aren’t these points really the main reason the Opposition has issue with the NBN?”

      Seems to depend on what day of the week it is, mostly I think they dont want to admit they screwed up the Telsra sale (dint split it into network co and retail co before sale) and therefore caused the need for the Labour backed NBN in the first place.

  7. This article starts by praising the government monopoly coax that provided the first high bandwidth comms link between our two biggest cities, then condemns the NBN fibre for being a new government monopoly. You can’t have it both ways, Renai, or are you trying to turn into Malcolm Turnbull? :-)

    Seriously, though, just like the 1850s overland telegraph and the 1950s rural deployment of universal PMG copper, then the 1990s fiascos with duplicated HFC and line-sharing RIMs, history proves time and again that only a government project will deliver adequate comms services to all Australians rather than only the most profitable areas. Defining “adequate” you could choose Malcolm Turnbull’s baseline 6 Mbps or the NBN’s baseline 12 Mbps, but the monopoly argument still holds. And it is this very same monopoly infrastructure – whose wholesale pricing will be set by parliament, not corporate boardrooms, and therefore set in the public interest – which guarantees the most even playing field possible for all retail providers.

    Today’s Fin Review did the same thing. They began explaining that because the coalition wants to be judged for bringing the budget quickly back to surplus, it will certainly not be replacing the off-budget NBN with an on-budget FTTN project of its own. But it then quoted Optus “and others” (who?) as saying that “consumers will pay for the network one way or another, as it stands, through higher prices.” Which consumers, exactly, will be paying more? Bottom-end phone users will pay less for the phone and get unlimited phone calls, modest internet usres will get faster service and unlimited phone calls for less than line rental plus ADSL today, and businesses paying for symmetrical DDE or ISDN now will pay a tiny fraction compared to now for much faster services, especially upload speeds. (E.g. a 2/2 Mbps DDE service is $960/mth, 10/10 Mbps is around $2400/mth, and can now become, e.g. 25/5 Mbps at $96/mth, or 1000/400 Mbps with massive data at under $400/mth.)

    Corsair, for details on the planning and management, have a read of the documents on, starting with the May 2010 NBN Implementation Report that explains the methodology whereby getting the cheapest universal service of at least 12 Mbps produced a network capable of 100 Mbps to 93% from day one, and gigabit where there is demand.

    It’s a great technical plan, and an optimal funding model, and should be bi-partisan. Roll on, NBN!

    • ” Bottom-end phone users will pay less for the phone and get unlimited phone calls, modest internet usres will get faster service and unlimited phone calls for less than line rental plus ADSL today ”

      Where did you get this information from?

      From what I could see Telstra’s prices are exactly the same.

      Additionally – from what I’ve seen in regards to the prices for the plans – they have been quite similar to current ADSL plans.

      So basically – from what I’ve seen – the cost of an NBN service (which includes home phone and Internet) is exactly the same as the cost of ADSL + Line Rental.

      Am I wrong here? Please let me know if I am.

      • Didn’t NBNCo say something like, they would supply the same or better service for the same or better price?

        So from what you have seen Corsair they are the same, price wise.

        But remembering of course that for almost everyone, even the same NBN plans will be superior to ADSL, because they won’t suffer from degradation the further from the exchange you are.

        So you will pay the same for better.

    • Except for the minor point you forgot to mention that when long-haul coaxial cables were laid down between the major cities in Australia is was completely illegal for any private company to compete with government. So yes, that really does prove that when government stomps out all competition by brute force then at that point only government can do the job.

      However, once the law actually allowed competition, we had various private companies laying down long distance fiber all over the nation, but for the sake of a good story let’s just pretend that never happened.

      Mind you, none of this is relevant to the NBN, since the NBN is sort-haul fiber to the home anyhow, and it not in the business of long distance links. *SHRUG*

  8. Small correction to the numbers in the above post. Symmetrical 2/2 Mbps DDE now costs $800/month, and the nearest NBN product of at least the same speed is 25/5 Mbps at around $80/mth, a massive 90% saving for small business, but also massively faster.

  9. To think the old Siemens 6Mhz Coax link between Melbourne and Sydney..had the amazing capacity of 1 TV or 600 4khz FDM carrier channels. for each Coax tube..the cable was used until mid 80s updated to a 12Mhz system.

    • Initial Melbourne -Sydney coax was 4.5MHZ 960 VF channels (16 Supergroups of 60 VF channels made up of 5 groups of 12 VF channels) 2 tubes required seperate Send & Receive

      4 tubes used for VF

      More channels actually used as a supergroup from Melbourne to Albury could then be used for a supergroup Albury to Sydney.etc.

      It was later upgraded to 6MHz with a supermastergroup with 300 VF channels making it 1260 VF channels

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