As most stories begin, the internet in Australia had a slow start. To be more specific, universities and other institutions needed to exchange files and keep up with curricular and technological advancements. The universities of Melbourne and Wollongong began sharing files on a dial-up line in the 1970s using two Unix-based computers.
In its infancy in Australia, the internet was mainly utilised by computer scientists. It’s been three decades since then, and approximately 86% of Australian households now have access to fast and reliable internet. Thanks to the development of superior computers and supporting technologies, our online experiences have significantly been transformed. One of these technologies is likely enabling you to read this article almost instantly. This speed was unimaginable 30 years back, but now it’s commonplace, all thanks to the internet’s pioneers.
Beginnings of the Internet in Australia
The internet began in Australia purely due to need. As universities grew in information and size, there was a need to keep track of changes and updates in the ever-evolving world. By the time Australia first introduced the internet to its citizens, it had been around for close to 20 years. (The first network was established in the US back in 1969.)
There were several attempts in the 80s to broaden the university network, culminating in implementing a national network after a financial, technical and business plan prepared by Geoff Huston was approved in 1989. With a 56kbps satellite circuit from the University of Hawaii coming to play soon after, the internet began its journey to today’s lightning-fast Australian internet.
Progress of the Internet
Australia remained isolated from the world of the internet through the better part of the 1980s. Distance and the lack of interest by most commercial providers played a significant role in the slow uptake of internet technologies.
The internet speeds available in the 80s (56kbps) meant it would have taken more than a week to download a movie in Australia, and it was not even fast enough to stream a single song. Fortunately, digital content streaming was not a “thing” back then, and the internet was only available to a small community in Australia. Most of the people who had access to the internet were either researchers or academics in physics or computer science.
After 1989, the internet started gaining popularity with institutions as well as organisations. Email and newsgroups gained more traction than other internet applications, giving people access to information and software sharing services such as Archie and WAIS.
Since the official internet approval in Australia in June 1989, the World Wide Web took another four years to become a significant aspect of the economy. A few networks were available in Australia, including the relatively open ACSNET (now AARNet), which computer science departments developed to facilitate information sharing between universities and secure the networks that the government and organisations operated.
Less than a decade from the opening of the first link, internet bandwidth had already reached extents that were unfathomable a few years earlier. Increased bandwidth meant that data transmission would be much faster, creating the web infrastructure we have come to love. Computer hardware was also developing at elevated speeds.
With computer hard disks growing in capacity each passing year, it gave more capability to access the web, save pages and run servers. This gave rise to an unprecedented rate of remote user access to software and data in Australia.
A third significant development on the internet was brought about by the introduction of a new operating system. The new UNIX operating system was founded and developed by a community of people who wrote the UNIX-based code for no charge. Thanks to the community, the systems underpinning the modern-day internet were established. With UNIX came the culture of collaborative code development by programmers, which began by sharing software between institutions and communities of like-minded developers.
Developed by Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson, together with a few colleagues from AT&T Labs in the United States, UNIX introduced what is today the open-source movement. The new operating system finally made it possible for developers to have remote access to software and fix errors themselves. However, it would be two decades since the introduction of UNIX for the web to become appealing to Australian users. The release of the Mosaic Browser in 1993 allowed the approximately 100 websites available to users to deliver information in a remarkably attractive way.
Soon the digital world started to seem more appealing than magazines, radio, and postal services due to its ease of access and speed of information updates. However, home computers remained largely stand-alone, with open-source communities increasing at universities and institutions with the goal to share data and develop better systems.
The early 90s were a period of internet maturation, popularisation and transition in Australia, with support for content provision allowing the publishing of news on websites. Enhanced protocols such as File Transfer Protocol (FTP) were also introduced in the early 90s, driving internet nodes, text-based email, and Usenet News to the millions.
With the transfer of commercial customers and management of interstate and international links from AVCC to Telstra in 1995, users accorded more importance to internet services. With the rising number of users, it became necessary for Telstra to provide additional capacity to match the demand. By 1997, some modems could achieve speeds of up to 33.6kbps, and by late 2000 approximately 50% of Austrian adults had internet access.
Current State of the Internet in Australia
Telstra Bigpond was the first ISP provider to introduce consumer ADSL services in Australia, artificially capping their speeds at 1500/265 kbps (download and upload speeds, respectively). It was not long until other ISPs followed suit by reselling the connections they purchased from Telstra at wholesale. Today’s ubiquitous Wi-Fi networks in Australia heavily rely on the advancements in wireless networks across institutions and organisations.
Australia’s National Broadband network features an internet policy ambition that tramples most international models with impressively sizeable geographical reach. The publicly-funded institution aims to avail fast internet to all Australians, including those in the most remote parts of the continent. While digital market monopolisation remains a national concern in Australia, there has been significant legislation that captures lost tax revenue from internet businesses.
Today, more than two-thirds of Australian households already have broadband subscriptions, with most of the connections still utilising digital subscriber line (DSL) technology. While the technology translates to faster speeds, modern applications need faster transmission speeds than the technology can support. Customers in close proximity to ISP providers can access speeds of up to 24 Mbps. However, Australia is a vast country, and those located further from providers can only access average internet speeds of 4.8mbps.
The Journey Continues
It has been a long but adventurous journey to today’s superior online experience in Australia. Though there exist inhibitors to the goal of fast continent-wide connectivity, the enthusiasm to build fast and appealing content remains the fuel to the Australian internet engine. The super-fast internet speeds enjoyed in Melbourne have a history, but more importantly, they have a profound future and capability. While we can predict what future speeds in Australia are likely to be, we cannot tell what innovation will change the scope.