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The Other Telecom Phones


A series of five articles written by Bob Estreich.

Decorator Phones - Antique Styles



In the 1970s an increasing number of imported antique-styled phones were selling in Australia. Most came from Singapore, and were in the style of the Danish DO8 model. Quality was pretty indifferent, and the ringer usually failed quickly on the higher Australian voltages. An all-plastic version marketed by Teleantiques was of particularly poor quality and gave the whole range a bad image.

Telecom was interested in adding "antique" phones to its range but there was a lot of technical redesign to be done before the phones were fit for use on the Australian system. Insulation particularly was a problem, with the components so close to the metalwork. The ringers had to be improved to make them compatible with Australian exchanges, and current sharing had to be adequate to allow them to work in parallel with standard phones. As a matter of interest, the phones had to withstand a brief surge of up to 2 kilovolts.

A suitable range was decided on, tested, and trialed in Western Australia in 1983. The trials being successful, the phones were released for general sale in 1984. They were high quality well finished phones. They were generally fitted with woven silk cords and gold plated metalwork. They were not particularly fast sellers due to their high price (over $450 for the top models) but sales were steady if unspectacular through the mid 1980s.

Although similar styles were sold overseas, the revised electronics made these phones distinctly Australian. They are a significant if unappreciated part of the Telecom range. All are now rare.

References:

Decorator Telephones, S J Sanders & C S Wood, Telecommunications Journal of Australia Vol 35 No. 1, 1985.
Telecommunications Product Handbook, Telecom Australia, undated.
Various Telecom Australia advertising and brochures.









Decorator Phones - Pushbutton Styles

The increasing penetration of STD in the 1970s led to an explosion in self-dialled calls. Heavy phone users found rotary dial phones were cumbersome, and Telecom looked to the U.S. to monitor progress on the new pushbutton phones.

By 1978 expertise in electronic phones had reached the point where it became practical to issue the first Touchfone. Known as the Touchfone 10, it used a semi-mechanical keypad and the usual electromechanical bells. Because of its high extra rental and unexciting colour range (grey or ivory) it was unpopular. Customer demand, however, required that Telecom introduce some sort of inexpensive pushbutton phones to meet the customer demand. The phones were still not particularly reliable (or cheap) but models were selected to fill the gap. Transistors and memory chips were being introduced into telephone electronics, and in the United States this allowed new features to be introduced such as memory for saving numbers. These facilities were included in the new models where possible.

Some phones were based around one particular feature. These features did eventually become part of the telephone range - customer demand saw to that, and Telecom was very responsive to customer demand. In the meantime, these facilities were catered for in the Purchased Phones range. At a price.

Changes to the standard phone design were being driven by the technical improvements as well. Dials were expensive to make, and as the cost of push button circuit boards came down there was an incentive to introduce a standard touchphone to replace dial phones.

In 1985 the standard Wallfone range was updated to an all-electronic pushbutton model, and for the first time there was no extra charge for the facility. This pretty much meant the end of the Purchased Phones based around a keypad, as it was no longer a saleable feature. Other features such as handsfree dialling became more important. Special styles could be still be saleable but many customers decided that the standard Telecom phone did the job quite well and at no extra cost. This range of phones ended with the introduction of the Touchfone T200.








The Computerphone

Telecom's Computerphone was a strange product, not only a phone and not just a computer. A bit of political history is in order. In the 1970s in the U.S.A., pressure was building for the Bell network to be split up. Political feeling was that it should be broken up into separate carrier, local distribution and value added companies. This pressure was being echoed in Australia, with a concentrated media campaign purporting to show how inefficient Telecom was. No-one was quite game to suggest selling Telecom off, yet, but management could see the way it was going to go. Some forward-looking executives in Telecom's upper management had foreseen that data would be a highly profitable area, and they set about claiming a place in that market before it was closed off to them.

They did this in two ways. The first was to establish a joint venture company (with the Fairfax newspaper group, I believe) to set up a new bulletin board service called Viatel. These bulletin boards were a dial-up service, forerunner of the Internet. Fairfax provided the content and Telecom provided the technical knowledge and the access. As a partly private enterprise this neatly got Viatel out from any Government selloff but kept Telecom in the market. I suspect it was also a good way to defuse a potential competitor. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Viatel provided news, financial and weather information, entertainment and so on - just as the Internet does today.

The other way was to make access to the service easier. Setting up computers and modems was a black art, and few people had the knowledge to do this. What was needed was a computer-based system which had data access built in. This is where the Computerphone came in. Essentially it was a computer with application software, and a telephone and modem built in. Technically the machine was already dated when it came out in Australia. It had 128 kilobytes of RAM and a unique tape mini-cassette storage system. The screens came in a choice of 12-inch mono or 13 inch colour (four colours only). It had an inbuilt 1200/75 baud modem. When the Computerphone was shown to Telecom sales staff, we were told that it was most definitely a TELEPHONE. We could sell phones. We couldn't sell computers. The political ramifications were definitely off the record.

The Computerphone concept worked. Users programmed in the phone number and the rest was automatic. As well as Telecom's Viatel, the CSIRO had set up a similar system. It was called, I think, SIRONet, and was popular among farmers for its weather information and cattle prices. Toyota and Flag Motor Inns set up systems for their dealers and agents. Slowly but steadily Australians experienced dial up data access, on the Telecom-based system. The slow modems were OK since graphics were primitive on the text-based pages. Porn was simply not worth the trouble.

There were problems. Many rural users experienced the interference that their electric fences could cause to data transmissions. The "tick tick tick" in the background of a phone call could cripple data transmission. The unhappy effect of lightning strikes on computers was discovered. The Computerphone itself proved less than reliable. In the U.K, where ICL was selling it as the "One Per Desk" it quickly became known as the "One Born Every Minute". The case was flimsy, the cassettes fragile and slow to load, the monitors unreliable, the thermal printers expensive (when they worked). The Computerphone stayed in use for around five years, and for the last two years customers who sent in a faulty monitor got two back in return. In the end it was quietly dropped from the product range as better computers became widely available and modems became faster.

Was it worth the effort and the cost? In the long run, yes. Telecom (now Telstra) still retains its place in the data transmission field. Telstra Shops now sell computers as well as phones. Telstra has many joint venture companies involved in data services. The staff gained the experience they needed to move into this new field.

A Computerphone is now rare. No collector seems to have one in their collection. Those of us who remember it tend to burst out laughing, but the rest of you will probably never see one.


The Nomad

The demand for a cordless phone of limited but useful range was one which Telecom missed completely in the 1980s. A number of non-Telecom Approved phones were being sold in major cities, often by the same people selling the then-illegal CB radios. Like the CBs there were a number of serious flaws in the phones. They were known to interfere with other radio equipment. There was only a limited choice of frequencies on the phones (usually two) and lack of secrecy between similar brands of phones in the same neighbourhood caused many disputes. Anecdotal evidence had it that you could drive around your suburb with your handset turned on until you got a dial tone, then make your calls on someone else's phone.

Telecom belatedly realised the need for a better quality phone to address these problems, and the Nomad duly appeared. It featured multiple frequencies; a security code unique to the individual phone to stop calls being made from other handsets, and a far higher standard of construction and radio frequency accuracy.

It was not cheap, selling in the middle to upper $400 range, but it set a standard that the cheaper phones could not match and led to a dramatic increase in the quality of cordless phones in general. In fairness to Telecom, such a phone was not technically possible in the earlier days as some of the technology was still being developed in response to the problems which were being discovered. In spite of the late start, they got it right. The Nomad bears a surprising resemblance to a standard high-end cordless phone of today, and I know of at least one that is still working today.



Intercoms

Although Telecom had the basic customer phones under control, business phones were another matter. Larger business needs could be filled with a PABX but smaller businesses were still stuck with technology dating from the 1910s. The oldest was the Tele-intermediate, basically a single-extension manual switchboard with limited intercom facilities. This went back to World War 1.

More modern users had A5 or A10 intercoms. These were large, ugly, noisy, hideously expensive to install or modify, and becoming extremely unreliable due to their age - they dated back to the 1920s.

The smaller users could be catered for with the new 1/3 intercom (pronounced "One Bar Three"). It was designed to handle two extensions, both of which could be external two-wire. The first issue was plagued with problems. Customers had to provide a power point for its use, the external extensions were prone to lightning strikes, and customers complained about the colour choice - as usual, grey. A smaller version for internal use only was the 1/2 intercom. The lightning problem delayed the introduction to country areas for some years, but eventually they became commonplace. They are fairly easy for collectors to obtain.

A new unit called the Multicom replaced the old Non-Switching Unit. It allowed a number of phone lines or extensions to appear on a single console. Unlike many NSUs, the Multicom also had hold and transfer facilities. It was extremely expensive to install, as each line was hardwired into each console, much like the A10. It was not popular and was very quickly superseded when the first Commanders were released. It came in sizes named for the number of lines: Multicom Zero 6, Multicom 10 and Multicom 20. These are now extremely rare.

The first practical new intercoms were the 2/6 and 4/11 systems, representing the number of exchange lines and number of extensions available on the system. (This was fairly standard PMG and Telecom practice for both switchboards and intercoms). Made in Germany, the systems were rugged and well built, but expensive to install as each extension was again hardwired to the others. As a result they were mostly used on new installations rather than A10 replacements. They also were quickly made obsolete by the Commander systems. Because of their initial cost they tended to stay in use for many years so they are still fairly easy to obtain for collections.

All these phones became technically obsolete with the introduction of the first Commanders. These used at most four wires to each phone, came in a wide range of sizes, and were simple and reliable in use.





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