Tuesday, June 14, 2005

The History of the Telephone in Hong Kong

Ah, at last. Analysts have been saying that there will be a period of buyouts and consolidations in the Hong Kong mobile industry for almost as long as American Presidents have been trying to get Castro out of Cuba. An exaggeration of course, but the news today of PCCW's buyout of Sunday Communications for a little under US$200 million has been long-awaited news. Sunday's 3G license suddenly looks more credible, PCCW's vow to stay away from debt less so.

But why our interest, other than the fact that our main business of audio-guided walking tours is undertaken on a mobile phone? Well, today we'd like to share with you the interesting history of the telecommunications giant today known as Pacific Century Cyberworks and previously known as Hong Kong Telecom. Many of you may sneer and say that PCCW has little history other than that of an Internet firm that got lucky during the boom years, and that its founder Richard Li (son of Asia's richest man, Li Ka-Shing) benefited unfairly with his connections in receiving the Cyberport project without tender. Well, there may be merits to some of your arguments, but we would dispute the idea that Mr. Li and his company lack a sense of history.

Why? Because the Cyberport project is far from the first major project his firm has undertaken in Pok Fu Lam. All the way back in 1871, the newly-formed British firm Cable & Wireless, the self-styled 'nerve centre of the British empire', under visionary John Pender laid the first undersea telegraph cable to Hong Kong -it's very first direct connection to the outside world. And where was it laid? Telegraph Bay in Pok Fu Lam of course; hence the name. The company that did that, two years later christened the "Eastern Extension Australia and China Telegraph Company" and operating links between Darwin, Madras, Singapore, Saigon, Hong Kong and Shanghai, ultimately became part of Cable and Wireless.

Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876, and it arrived in Hong Kong just a year later. By 1882, a company named the Oriental Telephone and Electric Company introduced Hong Kong's first telephone system, making it easy for a taipan to call his chair coolies to carry him from the Praya all the way up to the Peak. Kowloon, however, had to wait until 1905 to get telephone services, and no service existed between Hong Kong and Canton (Guangzhou) until 1931.

Now here it gets complicated; Oriental Telephone was later renamed the China and Japan Telephone and Electric Company, and by 1925 was renamed to be simply the Hong Kong Telephone Company (HKTC). The HKTC in 1925 received, in the grand old style of Hong Kong monopolies, the right to run a system here in Hong Kong for 50 years starting July 1st (does that sound familiar to Basic Law readers?). In 1938, on the eve of war, C&W which had been responsible for Hong Kong's external telecom links agreed to work together with HKTC to form a telecom company that would be responsible for the national network. Thirty years later (following the devastation and rebuilding of the network under Occupation) the Hong Kong government were so good as to extend the monopoly for another twenty years, from 1975 until 1995 (when New T&T, New World and Hutchison jumped on the fixed-line bandwagon).

As for Mobile, a wholly-owned subsidiary of HKTC, the Communication Services Limited (CSL) was given the first license to operate a mobile network in 1984, followed quickly by the Hutchison Telephone Company in the following year. I'll bet a lot of you bought into CSL's campaign and believed it always stood for 'Create a Simple Life'!

In 1988, a major change occurred when the HKTC and the local division of C&W merged to create the Hong Kong Telecom company - which became PCCW when Richard Li bought out C&W's stake in the firm in 2000.

Whew! There you have it, the history of telecoms in Hong Kong in a few minutes. How far we have come! For those interested in a milestone timeline, check out the OFTA site here.


Stephen Austin said...

Nice article, thanks. I found the red text against a blue background at the top almost illegible, though.

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