From smoke signals to social media, communication over distance has long been both important and evolving. This article reviews the changing nature and price of communication methods tracked by Statistics NZ for the consumers price index (CPI).
18 million telegrams sent in 1930
Statistics NZ first recorded the price of telegrams in 1930 when 18 million were sent in New Zealand (Census and Statistics Office, 1932). By 1949, when the modern CPI was first published (before that a ‘retail prices index’ was used), a 12-word telegram cost 14 pence. For that price you could post seven letters. That would be about $4 in today’s prices, after allowing for general CPI inflation from 1949 to the June 2012 quarter.
In 1965 we changed from tracking 12-word to 15-word telegrams, which cost 24 pence (or $3.69 in today’s dollars). Soon after this, the use of telegrams began to drop. By 1980 the number of telegrams sent had dropped to 2.8 million, and we removed them from the CPI basket. At this time a 15 word telegram cost $1.90 (or about $8 in today’s prices), which was enough to post nine letters.
Telegrams: bringers of brief but important news
Telegrams were sent over a telegraph, a machine that transmits electrical pulses through a cable. Someone would write out a message and give it to the telegraph operator, who would transmit the message to the telegraph office nearest the recipient. The receiving operator would write the message down and either hold it for collection or pass it on to the ‘telegraph boy’ to deliver.
Telegrams were usually used to communicate brief but important news. As such, they were greatly feared during wartime, but they also brought joyous news such as births, engagements, and wedding congratulations from those who could not attend the event.
Over 100 letters per person sent in 1930
Like telegrams, postage was first tracked in 1930, when we recorded the price of posting a 1 ounce letter. During that year just over 150 million private and business letters were posted in New Zealand – about 102 letters per person (Census and Statistics Office, 1932).
In 1949, when the modern CPI was first released, the minimum cost of sending a letter was 2 pence ($0.57 in today’s prices), which was about the same amount as a newspaper.
In 1965, the number of postage items in the CPI basket expanded to include parcels and airmail. At the time, sending an airmail letter cost 5 pence ($0.77 in today’s dollars), sending a parcel cost 24 pence ($3.69 in today’s dollars), and posting a letter at the cheapest rate cost 3 pence ($0.46 in today’s dollars).
Mail flies for first time in 1919
New Zealand’s first experimental mail flight was made by George Bolt in 1919, but it wasn’t until 1935 that the first successful airmail service started, between Hokitika and South Westland (Ministry for Culture and Heritage, 1966). The first New Zealand to Australia mail flight was in 1934, when Lieutenant C T P Ulm carried airmail from Muriwai beach to Sydney.
In 2008, postage in the CPI had a major makeover, with courier charges added to the basket, as well as more postage-paid bag options (eg, plain, bubble wrap). In 2011, we also added delivery charges (on items such as online book orders, online groceries, lounge suites, and spa pools).
Increased use of email has caused a large reduction in the number of articles posted annually, from just over 1 billion in the 1999/2000 year to just over 800 million in the 2010/11 year (NZ Post, 2011).
Price of private phone rental tracked from 1955
People used to rent their home phones. Private phone rental was the first phone service tracked in the CPI and was included from 1955. When phone rentals were first tracked, the annual cost was 15 pounds, which is $61 per month in today’s dollars. By 1965, phone rental costs had dropped to $52 per month in today’s terms (17 pounds per year at the time), which is only slightly more than Telecom’s current line rental in October 2012 of $46 in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch, and $51 in the rest of the country.
In 1955 there were 500,000 phone connections in New Zealand; this increased to 1.7 million by 1980.
Purchasing cordless or basic phones was tracked from 1988.
Domestic toll calls were tracked from 1974 and international calls were added in 1988. We also tracked phone box calls from 1974 to 1988.
Home phones – from humble beginnings to modern day reliance
In 1877, Charles A Henry organised a trial of New Zealand’s very first ‘talking telegram’ by sending voice down a telegraph cable (Newman, nd), but it wasn’t until 1910 that we had our first coin-operated telephones. The 1930s saw an increase in the popularity of the telephone, with the very first international call made by Sir Apirana Ngata from Kirkaldie and Stains in Wellington to Australia’s acting Prime Minister in Sydney.
Telecommunications were run as a state owned monopoly by the New Zealand Post Office until April 1987, when Telecom became a state-owned enterprise. Telecom was privatised in 1990 (Newman, nd), and part of the deal was to ensure local calls remained free (Evans, 2010).
Cellphone services added to basket in 1999
In 1999, with 1.2 million private and business cellphone connections in the country (Commerce Commission New Zealand, 2007), cellphone services were included in the CPI basket. This was followed by the addition of cellphone handsets in 2002.
Cellphones more numerous than New Zealanders by 2009
Cellphones were available in New Zealand in the 1980s, but it wasn’t until the smaller, more affordable digital cellphones of the 1990s were introduced that their use became commonplace. The introduction of texting in 1998 prompted an explosion in the popularity of cellphones. In 1998, 21 percent of households had a cellphone, but by 2001 the proportion was up to 58 percent, and by 2009 there were more cellphone connections than people (Wilson, 2010).
Broad appeal for broadband: music, movies, and e-books added to basket by 2012
Internet charges were tracked for the first time in 1999, when we included dial-up services in the CPI basket. Since then, we have made changes to account for the increasing take-up of broadband Internet and the drop-off of dial-up.
As broadband services have increased in speed, data allowances, and popularity, consumer behaviour has also changed. This was reflected in the inclusion of music downloads in the CPI basket in 2008, and movie downloads and e-books in 2011.
Over 20 years of Internet in New Zealand
New Zealand’s first commercial Internet service provider (Actrix Networks) was established in 1989 (Heyday, 2010), two years before the world’s first website was published on 6 August 1991 (Business Insider, 2012).
Between 1996 and 2000, the proportion of New Zealanders with Internet access increased from 16 percent to 52 percent (including almost doubling in 1997). In March 2007 there were just under 1.5 million Internet subscribers, of which almost 85 percent were residential, contributing 73 percent of the revenue.
Broadband Internet was first available in 1999 (Point-Topic, 2012) and in September 2007 the number of broadband subscribers overtook the number of dial-up subscribers (Statistics NZ, 2008).
Business Insider (2012). Flashback: This is what the first-ever website looked like. Available from http://articles.businessinsider.com.
Census and Statistics Office (1932). Telegraph and toll services. In The New Zealand official year-book, 1932. Available from www.stats.govt.nz.
Commerce Commission New Zealand (2007). Telecommunications market annual monitoring reports. Available from www.comcom.govt.nz.
Evans, L (2010). Story: Law and the economy. Available from www.teara.govt.nz.
Heyday (2010). 1989: It came without a manual. Available from http://downtothewire.co.nz.
Ministry for Culture and Heritage (1966). Mail services. Available from www.teara.govt.nz.
Newman, K (nd). Taming the lightning. Available from www.wordworx.co.nz.
NZ Post (2011). Annual report 2011. Available from www.nzpost.co.nz.
Point-Topic (2012). New Zealand broadband overview. Available from http://point-topic.com.
Statistics NZ (2008). Broadband connection overtakes dial-up. Available from www.stats.govt.nz.
Wilson, A C (2010). Story: Telecommunications. Available from www.teara.govt.nz.
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