Remembering the OTC

You might not have heard of the Overseas Telecommunications Commission (OTC) before, but it played a major role in connecting Australia with the rest of the world in the 20th Century.

The OTC’s job was to manage and operate Australia’s external telecommunications. It was central to some pretty extraordinary broadcasting feats, including live, real-time news reports of the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and the televised moon-landing in 1969. 

In 1992, the OTC merged with Telecom (which later morphed into today’s privatised Telstra), but it would have turned 75 this year. Let’s look back at some major moments in the OTC’s history.

1956: Olympic Effort

Australians didn’t have TV until 1956. But within months of the introduction of TV, people across the continent – and across the world – were able to watch footage of the Olympic Games in Melbourne on their television sets.

The OTC, the ABC and the Postmaster-General’s Department hurried to make television available across our continent, so that as many people outside Melbourne as possible could tune in to the Olympic Games. Not many people in Australia owned television sets in the early days, of course, but people had TV parties and gathered in front of TV shop windows to watch.

And while we might take live, real-time international news coverage of the Olympics for granted these days, it was a new logistical and technological challenge in the 1950s. The OTC facilitated real-time news coverage across the globe, so that it was possible for a news editor in London to tear a results slip from a teleprinter within moments of local spectators seeing results on the scoreboard. 

During the Melbourne Games, a record amount of traffic was sent over Australia’s international telecommunications channels.

  • 9,408,254 words were sent over 22 leased channels, which operated for some 5,465 hours
  • 6,730 radiotelephone calls were handled
  • 2,296 phototelegrams
  • 285 hours of radio broadcasts were sent
Film, Olympic Post Script, 1956, Australia Post, National Archives of Australia C4189, 1334655. Film courtesy of National Archives of Australia and National Film and Sound Archive.

1963: Calling COMPAC

The OTC connected Australia to the world by phone in 1963, with the completion of COMPAC, the Commonwealth Pacific Cable System, which was an undersea phone cable system connecting Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii.

The network enabled people in Australia to dial telephone numbers overseas more or less directly.

Prior to COMPAC, making overseas calls from Australia was a bit of a rigmarole. You’d have to book the call through your post office or local exchange. Then the operator would have to schedule a call with their overseas counterpart. Then you’d have your scheduled call at the appointed hour, mediated by two operators. (Can you imagine the pressure for quality conversation under those conditions?)

COMPAC brought Australia into closer and easier contact with the rest of the world, and ushered in a more casual era of phone chat.  

The Bulletin, Vol 99, No 5044, 1977, National Library of Australia 1085805. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

1966: Earth Station Era

The OTC played a key role in the early days of global commercial satellite communication. Australia was a founding member of the international Interim Communications Satellite Committee, a kind of predecessor to the pioneering commercial satellite provider INTELSAT.  It was also part of OTC’s job to support NASA’s space flight projects. 

So, the OTC started building satellite earth stations. 

On 29 October 1966, OTC’s first satellite communications earth station in the small town of Carnarvon, WA, began operations. It provided tracking, telemetering and command services for the launch of satellites, with direct communication links with the USA. 

Soon other satellite earth stations popped up in other parts of Australia. In March 1968, OTC’s earth station at Moree, NSW began operating. Earth stations were opened in Ceduna, South Australia, and Healesville, Victoria, in later years, too. 

Australia was the first country outside the USSR to use satellite communications within its own mainland, when in 1969 through Moree and Carnarvon earth stations, OTC made circuits available via the INTELSAT Pacific satellite to the Postmaster- General’s Department.

1969: Moonwalk

By 1969, the OTC provided some 90% of the telecommunications links in the Southern Hemisphere, so it was the obvious choice as a carrier of crucial space communications back to Mission Control in Houston.

On 20 July 1969, television viewers around the world were able to see Neil Armstrong ‘take one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’, when he landed on the moon. 

The OTC played an important role in the broadcast of these famous images to the world. The signals from Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s lunar module were received by satellite circuits in Australia from the moon’s surface and were relayed to global audiences with the help of OTC technicians. 

Around 600 million people tuned in to this extraordinary broadcast of footage recorded by astronauts from the moon’s surface, approximately 384,000 kilometres away. 

Three men seated drinking from glasses, seated in front of electronic equipment
Photograph, 1969, featuring Ted Knotts, Richard Holl and Elmer Fredd. Image courtesy of Colin Mackellar, of
Certificate awarded to the Transmission System Sub-Section, 1969, National Communications Museum collection.

1975: Ship-to-ship-to-shore 

Communication at sea was a major element of the OTC’s work. From 1975, ships at sea were linked to Australian and international networks via the Maritime Telex Service. (Telex machines were a bit like fax machines, enabling people to send printed messages.) This enabled communication between coastal radio services and ships, as well as between ships themselves.

On 29 November 1976 the first ship-to-ship satellite telex call was made through an Australian coastal station. 

By the end of the 1970s, OTC operated several international submarine cable networks, had 15 coastal radio stations and three cable stations (in Cairns, Madang in Papua New Guinea and on Guam). It also operated four international radio stations and two international telecommunications terminals in Sydney. 

The OTC was doing business with 200 countries around the world. Its staff spoke 31 languages.

1980 and 1990s: Satellite Sport and Information Superhighway

In 1982, the Sydney-to-Hobart Yacht Race became the first yacht race in the world to be monitored by satellite communications. 

Officials took advantage of OTC satellite networks and the newly completed INMARSAT (International Maritime Satellite Organisation) system, which enabled speedy communications via three satellites in orbit 36,000 kilometres above the Indian, Atlantic and Pacific oceans.  The Sydney-to-Hobart radio relay ship, the E.B. Cane, was fitted with its own nifty earth station enabling instant fax, phone and telex communication. A massive upgrade in speed and accuracy for press and race officials.

For the 1984 Olympics, the OTC launched a ‘Herogram’ service, enabling Australian sports fans to send direct messages to athletes competing in Los Angeles.

In its final years, before it merged with Telecom in 1992, the OTC was looking into developing fibre optic communication technology. It also launched its Switched Digital service, which used ISDN technology for the high-speed transfer of text, data and images, fax and interactive video and audio. 

Important steps towards the internet we know today!

With special thanks to our collaborators:
Stella Barber, Historian
Sophie Quick, Writer
City of Melbourne
National Archives of Australia 
National Film and Sound Archive
National Library of Australia 
State Library of South Australia
Colin Mackellar,
Louise and Greg Dunnett, Valley Farm
Cruising Yacht Club of Australia

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