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Questions for Australia's Internet history and its broadband future

By Gerard Goggin - posted Monday, 5 May 2003

Inventing the Australian Internet

On the 14th of September, 1989, a group of people gathered to celebrate and create a new concept, and use a new technology. It was the 10th anniversary of the blockade of Terania Creek, the rainforest wilderness area near The Channon, 25 minutes north of Lismore in northern NSW. They climbed the path to Protestors Falls, then repaired to the car park. What brought them there was not only the commemoration of a great moment in the history of ecology struggles, but the launch of one of Australia's first commercial Internet services, Pegasus Networks Communications Pty Ltd. These Internet pioneers officially launched Pegasus with the assistance of a laptop and mobile phone - a novel process that would even cause Telecom technical indigestion.

The Internet was already two decades old when Pegasus was formed: the American ARPANET had been launched in September 1969. But 1989 was an auspicious year for Australian Internet in other ways. As Roger Clarke points out in his A Brief History of the Internet in Australia, a permanent Australian connection to the U.S. APRANET was established in the early 1980s by academics at the Universities of Sydney and Melbourne. The Australian Academic & Research Network (AARNet) went online on 23 June 1989, connecting to the APRANET at the University of Hawaii.

By 1993, Pegasus Communications had become the third-largest Internet service provider in Australia. The company was responsible for introducing many individual users, organisations and institutions to the Internet, including: the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC); parliamentarians; environmental, women's, peace, health, landcare, and human rights groups; other social movement and non-governmental organisations; small businesses, and households. Among Pegasus users and staff in its early years there was a real sense of excitement, a feeling that 'everyone who is anyone is on Pegasus'. Not just another business, or even an early Internet company, Pegasus created an audience, connecting people in a distinctive and rich online set of communities. Pegasus brought a public into existence.


Pegasus remained one of Australia's three largest Internet service providers until 1995, when larger corporations, such as Telstra, BigPond and Ozemail finally began to appreciate the importance and financial possibilities of the Internet and competed forcefully in the marketplace. Some in Pegasus thought the company had a good chance of continuing its development and moving from a focus on Internet connectivity - which by 1995 was well on the way to being achieved - to developing new services that NGOs, individual users and small businesses needed. What was required, however, was an injection of new capital, and there were interested parties in the ethical investor sector. As this funding did not materialise, however, Pegasus finally sold out to Microplex in 1996, which in turn was swallowed up by OptusNet in 1998.

Pegasus 'taught' many Australians about the Internet. As it was very much about using networking technology to link together local, national, and global contexts, Pegasus represents an attempt to create an Internet culture that informed but also resisted some of the developments in the 'net during the 1990s. The company did embrace commerce - before the actual ban on commerce on the Internet was lifted - yet Pegasus' philosophy of commerce was very much about ethos: namely, the complementary perspectives of ethical investment, and social and environmental sustainability. In doing so, Pegasus made an important contribution to Australian Internet culture.

Broadband or Narrow Vision?

The Internet is a relatively new medium and technology. As Manuel Castells observed in his The Internet Galaxy (2001), it is a technology very much shaped by people. The Internet is first and foremost a way for people to communicate - it connects people, in new ways.

To understand how our environment influences the development of information technology, we have a great deal to learn from understanding the creation and growth of the Internet. As one of the great communication technologies, social and cultural forces have been instrumental in putting the Internet to use - and making it what it is.

As we grapple with the present and future visions of technology, we need to understand how we got to where we are. Histories of the Internet are only now being written. But as the story of Pegasus Communications and the beginnings of the Australian Internet demonstrate, critically examining histories can provide resources to confront current questions.

In 2003, broadband communication technologies are something of an obsession. We can now sample broadband cable, broadband ADSL, broadband Internet, broadband satellite, and even … broadband mobile phones. In April 2003, Telstra, Optus, Vodafone, and Hutchison launched Australia's first 3rd generation (3G) mobile services. With 3G phones, the sales pitch goes, we can communicate via video, send each other photos, listen to music. If the 3G companies can cover the horrendous costs of buying their licences, all this might even be affordable!


In January 2003, a Federal government inquiry into broadband, the Broadband Advisory Group (BAG), released its final report, Australia's Broadband Connectivity. The BAG made some important recommendations, not least its call for a 'National Broadband Strategy'. Yet while not wishing to bag the BAG, I cannot help but feel a smidgeon of dejá vu here. Was there not a more extensive government inquiry in 1994 undertaken by the Broadband Services Expert Group that called for a new "user-oriented strategy for communications", a "National Strategy for New Communications Networks"? Nearly ten years later, no such strategy exists. Many broadband flowers may be blooming, but real questions about access, affordability, cultural concerns, economic impacts, and public spaces ("electronic commons") are going begging. There is no national co-ordinated approach to broadband.

Back to the Future

The Internet has surely been one of the fastest-growing technologies ever. It is now available to an extraordinary number of people in Australia. Fast, "always on", fully interactive broadband Internet will be an important new development for this technology. Australians will use broadband by many different means, and companies delivering the technology are doing so to make a profit. Yet its reach is very much concentrated in the richer countries of the world, and, even in Australia, many are being left off-line.

I fear that we have only a narrow vision of broadband's possibilities. Despite the government inquiries, and important work done by agencies such as the National Office on the Information Economy, key questions about Australia's broadband futures are not being answered. Not really even being asked.

The rub in the brash broadband bravado is this: Australia has only a tunnel vision of what the technology can do for its citizens. Crucial questions about broadband are not being addressed by our decision-makers. Issues such as: Who will have it? And how will it meet our needs? How will it interact with our cultures?

In the midst of the 2003 broadband odyssey, it is timely to reflect upon our Internet histories, and rich experiments such as that of Pegasus and AARNET: rooted in social, environmental, cultural, and economic concerns. Playing with the technology, putting it to use, making it serve sustainable futures, creating and sustaining publics. Democratising technology's potential, while conjuring up real utopias.

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About the Author

Dr Gerard Goggin is a postdoctoral fellow in the Centre for Critical and Cultural Studiesat the University of Queensland. He is working on a book provisionally entitled, Networked Imaginings: A Cultural History of Australian Internet. His history of Pegasus and the Internet in Northern NSW is being published in Belonging in the Rainbow Region, edited Helen Wilson (Southern Cross University Press, 2003).

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