28 September 2011

Talk to Me

Like all developed countries, Australia has an extensive telephone network. But I do not think Australians like telephones. Let me share my reasons.

Today, everyone here seems to prefer text messages and emails. I am unsure what everyone has against talking, but there appears to be a long history in Australia of not embracing the telephone.

Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876. The first telephones were installed in Australia in 1880, shortly before the hanging of bushranger Ned Kelly. Evidently, Ned kelly was bigger news at the time than the arrival of telephones.

According to reports, for the first 50 years after telephone service became widely available in Australia, most Aussies continued to use the telegraph to send and receive messages. I thought this may have been because Telstra was running the network and service calls were routed to India where they had not yet learned to speak English, but I am not correct. Perhaps, the first telephones were installed in Tasmania, like the NBN, and local residents lacked electricity, but this is also inaccurate. The initial phones were installed in Melbourne. Maybe the first phones did not connect to various sports facilities in Melbourne, which would cause local residents to question their value. Regardless, I guess Aussies evidently were just slow in embracing the telephone for whatever reasons.

Around 1901, the Postmaster General of Australia took control of the telephone and telegraph networks and hired 16,000 new employees, which accounted for more than 90% of the Federal bureaucracy. Ultimately, the staff rose to 120,000. With so many bureaucrats and politicians involved, maybe this helps explain the complexity of the system today.

In the US, all phone numbers are 10 digits consisting of an area code of 3 digits and a local number of 7 digits. When calling out of the area, callers need to dial a 1 before the area code. Within an area code, the three digit prefix is normally not required. Pretty simple.

In Australia, most local numbers are 8 digits – not sure why they need so many with so few people. There is a preceding state code of 2 digits with the first digit being “0.” Now it begins to get complicated.

If you are calling within a state, no state digit is used. If you are calling between states, both state digits are used. If you are calling from out of the country, only the second of the two state digits is used. So the number of required digits depends on where you are calling from.

Mobile phones have their own state code – 04. So a mobile phone in Melbourne has the same prefix as a mobile phone in Sydney. But when calling in Australia, you always must use both prefix digits even if you are in the same city or calling another mobile user. However, if you are calling from out of the country, you drop the first digit (0).

So if the phone number is 03 1234 5678 and you are calling from within state 3, you call 1234 5678. But if you are in state 2, you call 03 1234 5678; if you are out of country, you call 3 1234 5678 unless it is a mobile phone number in which case you always call 04 1234 5678 unless you are out of country in which case you call 4 1234 5678. Confused? We are just starting.

In Australia, there are also “non geographic” numbers. There is an emergency number (000) which is like 911 in the US, but there is a second emergency number in Australia for hearing impaired (106) and a third emergency number that is unclear why it exists (112) that can only be used from mobile phones. 000 can also be used on mobile phones but maybe the Y generation that only owns mobile phones wants a special number.

Community service numbers are only 4 digits (unless they are 8 digits) and start with 11. Network service numbers are 3, 4, 5, or 6 digits and start with 12. Neither community service or network numbers has a state prefix. If you are a community service organization (or network of some kind), the telephone company does not care where you are located.

Numbers that start with 13 can be either 6 digits or 8 digits (1300) and cost less than normal numbers to call, although how much less is unclear. Evidently, the owner of the number pays more for a six digit number than an eight digit number. This is really clever. I wonder why they don’t make all the standard numbers 15 digits but charge more for shorter numbers that are easier to remember? In New South Wales, the Transportation Department issues really ugly yellow licence plates for cars but makes standard white plates available at an extra charge, so there are good precedents for charging more for less.

Like the 1-800 toll free numbers in the US, Australia also has toll free numbers. It is just not as simple. They can be 10 digit numbers starting with 1800 (like the US) but they can also be 7 digit numbers starting with 180. I don’t know if they charge more for the 7 digit numbers but I would not be surprised.

Australia also offers “premium” numbers that begin in 19 and are generally 4 digits (maybe all are 4 digits but that would be too consistent in my experience). I wondered what “premium” services meant and inquired. It appears to include a variety of services such as SMS services, recorded messages, psychic consultations, and even phone sex. That is what the Government believes to be “premium” services and set aside its own number code. Numbers that begin with 19 allow the owner to charge the caller.

I think the primary purpose of land line phones today is for telemarketing. I have a land line that I never answer because it is always telemarketing people or computer generated sales messages. I cannot eliminate the phone line or I will lose my cable TV (thank you Telstra). I hate it when I do answer and some pretend friendly voice asks my how I am feeling. My friends all call my mobile phone.

I think we should be able to charge telemarketing firms for calling us. All numbers should be premium numbers and allow for user charges. Why permit someone to charge for psychic consultations but give telemarketers a free ride?

So using a telephone in Australia is not that easy. Why is it so complicated? Someone told me it was designed so possible invaders (like Japanese in WW2) could not use the phone system when they arrived. I do not believe this. I think it is just a system designed by 120,000 bureaucrats and politicians. The phones look the same as in the US, but the dialling is different and much more complicated.

And if someone does not know me but wants to call me on my land line and sell me something but are unsure of the number sequencing, just try 19xx and don’t hang up until you are out of money.