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Story: Telecommunications

By 1876 New Zealanders were able to send telegrams to London. From 1931 they could phone – if they could afford to pay the toll bill. In 2009 people communicated instantly by text, and there were more cellphones than people.

Story by A. C. Wilson
Main image: Chunky early mobile phones

Story Summary

All images & media in this story

Telegraph

Before there were telephones, people relied on telegraph lines to send messages quickly. The first telegraph line in New Zealand was between Lyttelton and Christchuch. It was set up by the government in 1862. Messages were translated into Morse code which was tapped into the line. At the other end they were decoded, written out on telegrams and delivered to people.

Telegrams could be sent very long distances, and lines were connected all the way to London in 1876. But they were very expensive – at first it cost 15 shillings a word (around $100 in 2008 terms). Prices fell and more people sent telegrams. In 1910 120,000 were sent overseas.

Telephone

People were amazed when they first heard a voice on the telephone. A line was connected between Dunedin and Milton in 1878 so the government could trial telephoning. They realised that phones would be very good for businesses, and phone lines went up around the country.

Communication and war

During the Waikato land wars British military engineers built a telegraph line from Auckland to Drury in 1863 so troops could communicate.

New Zealand telegraph operators were sent to both world wars. Women were trained to take over as operators while men were away.

Telecom

Telephones and phone services got more sophisticated. In the 1980s the government decided it would be better if telecommunications was run as a separate business, and set up Telecom. They sold it in 1990.

Internet

New Zealanders were quick to use the internet – by 2001, 87% of businesses were using email. But people did not have easy access to fast internet. Until 2007 Telecom monopolised the phone lines, and broadband internet was expensive compared to other countries.

Mobile phones

The first mobile phones in the 1980s were the size of bricks, and few people bought them. As mobiles got smaller and cheaper they became very popular. When texting was introduced in 1998 cellphone numbers doubled. In 2006 Vodafone had 2 million mobile customers in New Zealand and Telecom had 1.8 million – in 2008 there were more mobiles than people.

How to cite this page:

A. C. Wilson, 'Telecommunications', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/telecommunications (accessed 26 February 2018)

Story by A. C. Wilson, published 11 Mar 2010