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Connecting with overseas relatives: Then and now

Technology is advancing at such blistering pace; it can be easy to forget just how far we’ve come in a small amount of time.

Many Australians have family overseas, either on a permanent basis or as a result of travel. These days we can, with the press of a button, reach them at almost any time to hear the latest adventure, make sure they are eating well or remind them: “don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

Of course, it wasn’t always this easy. The internet is still relatively new on the grand scale of things, and fast broadband to facilitate high quality video or even audio two-way communication is newer still.

Imagine having to wait months for a letter, and taking double that for a response to your reply. If your birth date is recent enough, you might have a tough time wrapping your head around this one. 

30 years ago

Rewind back time to 1987. The biggest movie of the year is Three Men and a Baby, John Farnham’s Whispering Jack is top of the charts, and Lionel Messi has just been born.

Gamers are playing side by side in arcades, or, if they’re lucky, on early gaming consoles. The first mobile phone has just launched in Australia, but it costs over $4,000 and is the size of a brick.

It’s an exciting time to be alive, but reaching your relatives overseas is still no easy feat.

You could make phone calls, but with no regular access to mobile devices, these are landline locked and costly. On top of that, it’s difficult to arrange times for both parties to be near a phone at the same time.

Rural Australians had only just received long-distance phone calls in 1986, following the launch of AUSSAT, the country’s first communications satellite, so the technology to even call was still very raw.

There are no emails yet; many overseas relatives resort to handwritten letters or postcards. The lack of digital photography means you might only rarely get updates on what your distant friends and family even look like.

Letters sent from Australia to jet-setting family overseas can be even more challenging to achieve, given the transient nature of travel – only those with a base address are easy to reach at all.

Realistically, if you’re travelling and on the move, communication is likely a one-way street, with you sending the odd postcard home to fill in the fam’ and let them know you are still alive and well. 

20 years ago

When we travel back to 1997, we find the Spice Girls and the cinema domination of Titanic.

Gamers are now playing regularly online on their PCs in Quake II, but console gamers are stuck with local multiplayer in titles like GoldenEye 007. Even so, this is a far cry from just ten years previous.

Mobile penetration is still quite low, but starting to boom; it rose drastically in Australia between 1995 and 1999.

It is possible to call overseas and even send a text message at a comparatively expensive price, assuming your family on the other side has a device capable of receiving what is sent.

Images and video, however, are still a long way off, unless you physically record and mail them to your destination.

The internet is now available, but still in limited use. Only 14 per cent of Australian homes have the internet in 1997, with dial-up modems producing enough connectivity to access basic websites and download small files.

You can send emails, of course, which are becoming a popular way to connect with family overseas.

For many, the most common form of overseas communication with family remains handwritten letters and postcards, although the movement towards emails and phone calls is becoming more prevalent and affordable.  

10 years ago

By 2007, around 67 per cent of Australian homes were connected to the internet, with cable and ADSL allowing families to stay in more regular contact with relatives overseas.

In fact, some families had taken to connecting with each other through video games, such as the incredibly popular (to this day) MMO World of Warcraft.

In 2007, the very first iPhone launched into the market in the US, significantly changing the way we engaged with our phones.

It came on the back of the arrival of both Facebook and Twitter, while Skype was now well established by this point.

Together this combination provided people with the real-time capability to stay in contact with each other while overseas.


Connecting with relatives overseas has never been easier. The majority of us carry in our pockets smartphones with the apps and capability to communicate in real-time with people anywhere in the world via text, image or HD video.

Social media websites have matured drastically compared to a decade ago, with greater support for a huge range of multimedia and imagery.

Popularity in these services has also grown – it wouldn’t even come is a surprise if your grandparents are signed up these days.

What about ten years from now? Will we be connecting in virtual or augmented reality perhaps, able to walk up and give our family a virtual hug?

The way we connect with our family overseas will always advance, powered by access to fast broadband, but no doubt the messages we send each other won’t.

Increased access to connectivity is changing how we can communicate in more ways than one. Check out these online courses that can help you learn a new language from the comfort of your own home.

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