How South Africa went from its first telegraph service in 1859 to 100Mbps fibre in 2015

South Africans enjoy world-class telecommunications services, including fibre-to-the-home, LTE Advanced wireless broadband, and nationwide cellular coverage.

Establishing the network infrastructure that makes all of this possible took several decades – starting in 1859 when the first telegraph services arrived in the country.

Since then the infrastructure has grown as technology evolved.

The biggest infrastructure drivers in recent times have been mobile communications and Internet infrastructure, with billions invested to create national networks.

Below is an overview of some of the most prominent developments in South Africa’s fixed-line telecommunications market over the last 150 years.

A big thanks to Telkom’s library services for providing the photos.


 

1859 – The first telegraph in South Africa

The first telegraph in SA was launched on 2 December 1859. After communications wires had been laid and the apparatus affixed at both ends, a message was dispatched from the office of Thomson, Watson & Co, to the residence of Mr. Pickering at Roodebloem. The message was “Ship coming in with deals – do you want any?”.

Single needle tapper telegraph
Single needle tapper telegraph

 

1860 – Cape of Good Hope Telegraph Company opened its Cape Town – Simonstown line

The Cape of Good Hope Telegraph Company opened its Cape Town – Simonstown line in April 1860. This was the first public telegraph in South Africa, and was as a single-wire earth return telegraph line (circuit run) on wooden poles between Cape Town and Simonstown. The first telegraph in South Africa, a Cooke and Wheatstone system in the form of a visual needle telegraph, was a private company enterprise.

First telegraph line in Diep River, Cape Town
First telegraph line in Diep River, Cape Town

 

1878 – First telephones installed in Cape Town

In 1878 the first telephones were installed in Cape Town, using a point-to-point network. These telephones were used experimentally to link the dwelling of the Telegraph Department’s chief clerk with the St George Street Post Office.

The original telephone used in Cape Town to conduct the first speech test in SA in 1878 used by Boettger
The original telephone used in Cape Town to conduct the first speech test in SA in 1878 used by Boettger

 

1879 – First submarine cable between Europe and Durban

On 27 December 1879 South Africa was connected with Europe by means of the East Coast submarine cable of the South African Telegraph Company. This was a single-channel cable.

Cable station in 1879
Cable station in 1879

 

1882 – First telephone exchange in South Africa

In 1882 the business community of Port Elizabeth requested that the first telephone exchange in South Africa be established. It was opened on 1 May 1882 with 20 subscribers. The first switchboard of the Port Elizabeth exchange was a cross-bar return Schwizer Commutator and the telephones instruments used were of the Gower-Bell type.

First public telephone exchange switchboard
First public telephone exchange switchboard

 

1889 – First West Coast submarine cable

In 1889 the first West Coast submarine cable from Cape Town to Europe was established. The second cable followed via St Helena and the Ascension Islands.

Laying an undersea cable in Cape Town
Laying an undersea cable in Cape Town

 

1897 – First uses of underground cables

1897 was the first year that underground cables were used in South Africa. Previously, all cables were overhead. In 1909 underground cables were introduced in Johannesburg, Pretoria, and other major cities.

First underground cable in Johannesburg
First underground cable in Johannesburg

 

1910 – Radio communications were used for the first time in South Africa

Radio communications were used for the first time in South Africa when the Natal Administration established a coastal radiotelegraph station at the Bluff on 8 June 1910 to communicate with ships. It used a Marconi 3kW spark-gap transmitter, which had a range of about 400km.

Spark-gap transmitter
Spark-gap transmitter

 

1922 – The multiplex telegraph system and automatic telephone exchanges are introduced

In 1922 the multiplex telegraph system (“teletype”) opened between Cape Town and Johannesburg. This allowed four telegraphs to work in each direction simultaneously on a single line. The first experimental automatic telephone exchanges were installed at Waterkloof in Pretoria in July and at Camps Bay in September. A telephone trunk line was also opened between Johannesburg and Cape Town that year, which was made possible by the use of voice frequency repeaters.

First call on an automatic exchange in Camps Bay
First call on an automatic exchange in Camps Bay

 

1934 – Telex exchange installed

In 1934 a Telex exchange (12 and 3 channel system) was installed in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Telex subscriber switchboard in 1947
Telex subscriber switchboard in 1947

 

1960 – First satellite connection

1960 saw the first satellite connection in South Africa, in co-operation with America. It was also the year the first SOX 12-channel system between Bloemfontein and Klerksdorp was created.

Satellite communications in 1960
Satellite communications in 1960

 

1974 – Post Office computers transmit data at 40,800bps

The Post Office computers scored a first in the communications field in South Africa when they succeeded in transmitting data at the speed of 40,800 bits per second (bps).

Computer mainframe
Computer mainframe

 

1981 – The first electronic exchange opened in Pretoria

In 1981 the first electronic exchange opened in Pretoria – a French SA128. In the same year a German EWSD model was installed at Sunninghill Park north of JHB. It was the first exchange of its kind to be commissioned in the world.

Digital exchange in Pretoria
Digital exchange in Pretoria

 

1983 – 2.5Mbps infrared system launched

In 1983 a 2.5Mbps infrared system for the provisioning of services between computers was put into service.

Digital concentrators in containers
Digital concentrators in containers

 

1984 – First 140Mbps optical fibre line system

In 1984 the first 140Mbps optical fibre line system with a capacity of 1920 circuits, which used only part of the capacity of the optical cable, was used between New Doornfontein in Johannesburg and Power Park. It was also the year when an order to the value of R5.9 million was placed for the development of the computer system that was to be used for the commercial Beltel service.

Beltel
Beltel

 

1985 – Beltel, Diginet, overhead fibre, and satellites

In 1985 the facilities available on Beltel were extended, and Beltel interfaces for a variety of PCs were approved.

Diginet, the Post Office’s new national point-to-point and point-to-multipoint leased-line service for data users, collected information by means of data multiplexers and converted it into a high-speed signal for routing to the nearest automatic cross-connection equipment.

An optical fibre cable system between Nelspruit and kaNyamazane was the first optical overhead cable system to be installed in South Africa.

The first satellite digital transmission system via the satellite earth station at Hartbeesthoek was also commissioned.

Digital exchange
Digital exchange

 

1988 – 565Mbps optical fibre system installed

After successful tests in 1988, the first 565Mbps optical fibre system arrived in South Africa, installed between Pretoria and Johannesburg. The following year the first long-distance 565Mbps optical fibre system between Johannesburg and Bloemfontein was commissioned.

Fibre
Fibre

 

1992 – First 622Mbps SDH pilot network installed

In 1992 the first 622Mbps SDH pilot network was installed, connecting Doornfontein, Rosebank, Proes Street, and Bronberg.

Modern SDH setup
Modern SDH setup

 

1993 – High-speed asynchronous dial-in network commissioned

In December 1993 a high-speed asynchronous dial-in network was commissioned. It had the advantages of increased data throughput and ease of expansion.

56k modem
56K modem

 

1995 – ISDN launched, ATM pilot launched

Telkom’s ISDN service came into operation during March 1995. Some 300 customers were connected to ISDN within the first three weeks of commercial operation.

Telkom decided by 1995 that ATM technology would form the basis of the future broadband telecommunications network. Therefore a pilot ATM network between Cape Town and Pretoria was commissioned in November 1995.

Telkom ISDN modem
Telkom ISDN modem

 

2002 – ADSL launched

Telkom Internet powered by ADSL was launched in August 2002, providing broadband access to residential customers and small businesses.

Telkom ADSL router
Telkom ADSL router

 

2013 – VDSL launched

Telkom launched its 20Mbps and 40Mbps VDSL services in March 2013 following its MSAN network upgrades.

Telkom MSAN installation - Andrew Heuvel
Andrew Heuvel, executive in charge of Telkom’s network transformation project, in front of an open MSAN

 

2014 – Telkom fibre-to-the-home launched

Telkom launched its fibre-to-the-home services in December 2014, with its 100Mbps service promoted as its flagship product.

Fibre and DSL routers
Fibre and DSL routers

The history of telecoms in SA

The chart below from Telkom’s annual report provides an overview of the developments in the telecoms market over the last 150 years.

Telecoms developments
Telecoms developments

More on telecoms in South Africa

South Africa’s most popular mobile phones: 1994 to 2014

The first ever cellphones sold in South Africa

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How South Africa went from its first telegraph service in 1859 to 100Mbps fibre in 2015