Schweizerische Post-, Telefon- und Telegrafen-Betriebe
Schweizerische Post-, Telefon- und Telegrafen-Betriebe
General Directorate Swiss PTT
(41) 31 62 11 11
Fax: (41) 31 62 25 49
Incorporated: 1849 as Die Schweizer Eidgenössische Post
Sales: SFr9.91 billion (US$7.31 billion)
With its ubiquitous bright yellow post-buses and award-winning issues of elegant stamps, Schweizerische Post-, Telefon- und Telegrafen-Betriebe (Swiss PTT) presents a colorful image in Switzerland and abroad. In one of the world’s most mountainous yet most densely populated countries, the PTT supplies postal and telecommunications services for a population of 6.5 million speaking four different mother tongues—German, French, Italian, and Romanche—and for over 300 international institutions within Switzerland’s borders. It serves the 23 Swiss cantons and since 1921 the neighboring principality of Liechtenstein. This operating area is divided into 11 postal districts and 17 telecommunications districts. For an economy dominated by industry, banking, and tourism, good communications are essential. The PTT ranked eighth in 1989 out of Switzerland’s top 50 companies and is the country’s largest employer. After payments to reserves, its profits—SFrl50 million in 1989—go to the state. The PTT is part of the Ministry of Energy, Transportation, and Communication. Its activities are monitored, and its policy determined, by a government-appointed administrative council. Management responsibilities are shared by three directors general, one for postal services, another for telecommunications, and the third, who is also chairman of the board, in charge of legal, marketing, and other services for the first two.
Although the Swiss PTT itself can trace an unbroken line of origin back only to 1848 or 1849, Swiss communications in the form of a state-organized, long-distance postal service go back to Roman times. From the end of the first century B.C., the area that is now Switzerland was part of the ancient Roman Empire and benefited from the cursus publicus, a military and administrative postal system with mounted messengers traveling between the center of the empire and its colonies and outposts. Traces of an organized messenger service in Switzerland disappeared after the barbarian invasions and the fall of Rome in the 5th century A.D., until the 14th century. From then until the 17th century, the governments, legal and religious institutions, merchant houses, and guilds of the early confederation of 13 cantons had individual systems of official message delivery by uniformed foot messengers in the main towns and communities. Switzerland was also served by foreign-run message services, like those operating between France and Italy and between Italy and the Holy Roman Empire. Toward the beginning of the 17th century, with a surge in economic growth and international trade, runners were replaced for longer distances by teams of mounted couriers, employed by commercial postal services, some foreign-owned. By the last quarter of the 17th century, horse-drawn post coaches were operating out of all Switzerland’s big towns. One famous Swiss master of posts was Beat Fischer of Berne who, in 1675, started in his own canton a service based on the one being run in the Holy Roman Empire by the German princely family von Thurn und Taxis. The Fischer post, like that of the von Thurn und Taxis, grew and spread to rival, and in many cases eclipse, those in other cantons. The Fischer posts lasted until 1832. The von Thurn und Taxis service in Schaffhausen was among those absorbed by the new federal system in 1849.
Progress in industry, commerce, and transport brought further sophistication to the Swiss postal services in the 18th and early 19th centuries. In most of the cantons they were in time taken over by local government. In 1798, during the French occupation, the Swiss postal services were nationalized by decree, but in 1803, with the end of Napoleon’s Helvetic Republic, they fell back into their old anarchy. When Switzerland as a federal state came into being in 1848, a new constitution united the 22 cantons under a bicameral central government in Berne. The confederation proceeded to unify its diverse systems of coinage, weights and measures, customs duties, and posts. By 1849, when the postal laws enacted in 1848 by the new federation took effect, it was high time for order to be introduced into the system. There were by then 17 separate cantonal postal services, plus the one in Schaffhausen still run by the von Thurn und Taxis family. Each was organized with a view to its own maximum profit rather than to cooperation with neighboring postal services or to customer satisfaction. Most services were irregular, and in remoter areas, infrequent. Different cantons leveled different, often high, charges in differing currencies and weights, with resultant delays for letters and packets in transit. It could be cheaper to direct one’s mail out of Switzerland and back in again, rather than via one of the internal routes.
In 1849 the 18 formerly independent postal services were amalgamated into one organization enjoying a state monopoly. Administered from Bern, the Post had 11 regional directorates. The state was to pay annual compensation for loss of earnings to cantons or private individuals whose postal services had been taken over. Services already available to the public were not to be reduced, charges were to be made as low as possible, and secrecy of the mail was guaranteed. From the beginning, the federal post office conveyed letters, newspapers, parcels, and passengers. Under the leadership of Wilhelm Matthias Naeff and Benedikt Laroche-Stehelin, who occupied various high offices in the post office department, a process of streamlining and development began immediately.
The first Swiss federal adhesive prepaid postage stamps appeared in 1850. Zürich and Geneva in 1843, followed by Basel in 1845, had already been first in the world to respond to the 1840 British lead by issuing their own cantonal paper stamps. The first railway traveling post office, operating between Zürich and Brugg, went into service in 1857. In its early days, the Swiss postal administration was quite a modestly sized affair. According to its 1850 annual report to Parliament, its entire staff numbered 2,803, including 1,528 counter and office staff, 1,004 postmen, and 166 coachdrivers. In that year its profits, duly paid into the state coffers, amounted to SFr758,213, representing 14.6% of its turnover. Comparable figures for 1989 were as follows: employees, 61,703; and profit paid to the state, SFrl50 million (i.e., still roughly 14.6% of sales, which were SFr9,909 million). The range of postal services available expanded to include domestic money orders in 1862 and express delivery of mail in 1868. The year 1870 saw the introduction of the postcard. For a while, horse-drawn post coaches were used on the new Alpine and Jura pass roads, but on the main intercity routes, mail traffic was progressively transferred from the roads to the developing railways.
Electricity, meanwhile, had opened up new fields of communication. In the mid-19th century, Switzerland was one of the world’s most heavily industrialized countries, as well as one of the most mountainous. The physical difficulties of conveying the post had combined with the pressing communications needs of a flourishing business community to bring about a rapid adoption of telecommunications technology. Seeing their competitors in adjacent countries gaining the advantages of communication by electric telegraph, Swiss business executives were quick to demand the same. Following a federal act of 1851, providing for a state monopoly on telegraphy, the first telegraph network opened in 1852, using the Morse system of telegraphy, in which letters of the alphabet are composed of dots and dashes. The following year telegraphic communication with neighboring countries was possible, and by 1857 all the Swiss cantons were served by an extended network.
The year 1874 was a double landmark in the history of the Swiss PTT. The Universal Postal Union was founded, and Bern was chosen for its headquarters. In the same year, with a revision of the federal constitution, new state postal regulations came into force that released the Swiss Post from its compensation payments to the cantons. Even more important, the new regulations also brought the electric telegraph network under the 1848 to 1849 provisions concerning the post, with regard to state control and monopoly, use of profits, establishment of cheap tariffs, and inviolable secrecy. From then on, Swiss postal services and the telegraph, with successive forms of what would later be called telecommunications, would be gathered under the same administration.
Switzerland was quick to see the potential of the telephone. Swiss experiments with telephony started almost as soon as Alexander Graham Bell had patented his invention in 1876. In 1878 the government announced that telephone systems came under its monopoly on communications and that would-be providers of telephone networks must be licensed by the state. Two years later, the first private exchange was opened by the Zürich Telephone Company. In the 1880s the Swiss government installed its own systems in several other Swiss towns, starting with Basel, where the exchange was inaugurated in 1881 with a grand total of 55 subscribers. The private system in Zürich was bought out in 1886, and thereafter all telephony services were state-run in PTT. Postal services were being expanded and modernized. In 1889 the army postal service was established. The year 1906 saw the introduction of the postal giro—electronic money transfer—service and the experimental motorization of two Bern post-coach routes, leading to the first Alpine post-bus service—Nesslau-Buchs—in 1918. Postage stamp vending machines appeared in 1911, followed the next year by the first canceling machines. A Swiss internal airmail service began in 1913 between Basel and Liestal. In 1919 another linked Zürich, Bern, and Lausanne, and airmail stamps were issued for the first time. In 1900 the telephone networks in Ticino Canton were connected with the rest of Switzerland by the St. Gotthard cable. Public coinbox telephones were introduced in towns in 1904. Switzerland’s first transnational telephone service had begun as early as 1886, between Basel and the town of St. Louis in Alsace. After this, the international service grew rapidly until, on the eve of World War I, there were 81 separate circuits linking Switzerland to the outside world.
Motivated by the need to accommodate exceptionally heavy telephone traffic, Switzerland pioneered the automatic switching of telephone calls, and in 1917 the first semi-automatic exchange was installed at Zürich-Hottingen. The local systems were being rationalized and integrated, the links between them being laid underground for improved transmission and longevity. This work, continuing over the next four decades, was to entitle Switzerland to claim in 1959 that it had the world’s first fully automatic national telephone system. In 1919 telegraph traffic reached a record 8.31 million messages. During the 1920s, radio telegraphy, provided by Radio Suisse Limited, offered an alternative transmission medium to the international network of land lines. At first radio telegraphy focused on European countries, but beginning in 1932 there was a shortwave radio telegraph service to New York. With the increasing availability of alternative means of communication, starting with the telephone, however, the number of telegrams declined steadily after its 1919 peak. The legal, organizational, and management basis of the postal services continued to be adjusted from time to time to developing circumstances. The director of posts became head of posts and telegraphs in 1920 and in 1928 was given the title of director-general of the PTT. Since 1961 PTT has appointed three directors-general to manage its services.
The 1930s were a decade of rapid expansion. In 1930 subscriber trunk dialing was introduced between Bern and Biel, and in 1931, PTT undertook an additional major area of responsibility, broadcasting. Switzerland’s first radio transmitter had appeared in 1922, and various local broadcasting organizations had sprung up. Then there was a reorganization and the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, founded in 1931 and almost entirely government-owned, assumed charge of programming while PTT undertook the engineering side. PTT duly inaugurated three national transmitters, at Sottens, Beromünster, and Monte Ceneri, in the early 1930s. In addition, it introduced a telewire-broadcasting service. This took advantage of the telephone network to transmit to users whose reception would otherwise have been inadequate, either because the Alps got in the way of the signal or because, in towns, they experienced interference from electrical equipment. In 1931 low-frequency wire broadcasting over telephone lines was introduced. The national broadcast transmitters of Sottens and Beromiinster were commissioned in 1931, with ones at Monte Ceneri appearing in 1933. In 1939 radio telephone connections using VHF were made available for Swiss Alpine Club huts, and the next year the Swiss shortwave broadcasting service was equipped with its own transmitter station at Schwarzenburg.
The availability of teleprinters in the early 1930s made it possible for telegrams to be sent directly from one subscriber to another rather than via two telegraphy offices. The first teleprinters started operating in 1931. Telex services in Switzerland began in 1934; automatic switching facilities and subscriber dialing in the national telex service came along two years later. Telecommunications developed rapidly after World War II. In 1946 the Swiss PTT installed its first microwave telephone links, using high-frequency radio for transmission over line-of-sight routes, and the Zürich telegraph office was provided with picture transmission equipment. The 1950s saw many new developments, including the provision of VHF car phones and a nationwide car radio-paging service, the first stages of a national VHF radio broadcasting network, and an experimental television service. In 1954 the telegraph network was automated using the Gentex system, a post-manual telegraph message transmission and reception system that preceded the current computerized system; in 1957 subscriber dialing was extended to parts of the international telex service; and in 1958 a television service was introduced in Switzerland.
In the 1960s, a period of increasing economic success for Switzerland, there was an upsurge in telex traffic, and several improvements were made to accommodate it. By 1966 telex subscriber dialing was available between Switzerland and any other European country; by the following year telex subscriber dialing to countries outside Europe was also made possible. International telephone subscriber dialing began in 1964 and was completed in 1982. The 1960s saw the updating of some other PTT services. In 1964 a 4-digit postal code system was introduced into the mail services, and in 1968 the first fully automatic letter sorting system came into use in Bern. The first color television broadcast had been seen in 1967. Data transmission began in 1960 and by 1966 there was a service— Datex—to the United States. In 1965 telephone links were set up with the United States via Early Bird, the first communications satellite. 1974 would find Switzerland opening its own satellite earth station at Leuk, which was able to take over the major part of international telephone traffic.
In 1970 the new executive regulations for PTT came into force. PTT was given a board of directors, and another decade of expansion began. Competition from telephone, telex, and other newer services had steadily eroded the volume of telegram traffic. To make the system as cost-effective as possible, the Gentex network, which had been in use for telegrams since 1954, was replaced in 1971 by a computerized switching system called ATECO. The ATECO system was also available to private telex subscribers. In 1976 a public facsimile service— Bureaufax—was opened on an experimental basis, and work began on a national automatic earphone network. Mobile radiophones became available for Swiss motorists early in the 1950s, but these were limited as to the area in which they could be used. In the late 1970s, however, a nationwide system was set up using the public telephone network. The first of the five areas, covering Zürich, opened in 1978; the last appeared in 1980. The country’s first two fully electronic, processor-controlled telex and data exchanges came into operation at Zürich and Geneva in 1979. The same year brought the opening of a public automatic message switching service and the start of the videotex pilot trial. In 1980 the second antenna was commissioned at the Leuk satellite earth station, and an experimental telefax service, offering facsimile communication between subscribers with machines rented from PTT, began. Switzerland was linked up with the European Communities’ Euronet DIANE (Direct Information Access Network for Europe). The first two motorway tunnel radio supply systems were also put into operation.
The high cost of keeping abreast of competition and rapid technological change in the telecommunications field was felt when, in 1983, PTT had to abandon its 15-year attempt to develop a national electronic switch system—Integriertes Fernmeldesystem, or IFS—and change to Swissnet, the Swiss name for ISDN, or integrated services digital network, which makes use of foreign designs but requires manufacture and installation to be carried out by Swiss companies. PTT spent SFr8.2 million and employed 330 people on research and development in 1989. In 1991 telecommunications, costly in research and equipment, dominated PTT’s activities, accounting for 65% of sales in 1989. PTT continued throughout the 1980s to keep up with developments in the fields of microwave transmission, fiber-optic cables, satellite projects, and computerized systems.
The liberalizing of the telecommunications market had already begun in Switzerland in the mid-1980s, anticipating the European Economic Community green paper of 1987, which made proposals toward Europe-wide competition in telecommunications. In 1988 the Swiss telephone market was opened to competition, but PTT retained its monopoly on the supply of first handsets, which are rented to subscribers, and the right to approve equipment, including the already liberalized télétex services and modems, supplied by third parties. In answer to criticism from competitors, PTT separated its approvals department from its purchasing department. The government has plans for further deregulation of the supply and approval of telecommunications equipment, but these are likely to stop short of affecting PTT’s monopoly of network provision.
Until 1986, Swiss telecommunications manufacturers depended on PTT for two-thirds of their sales. In 1989 PTT contributed SFr5.25 billion to the private sector of the Swiss economy, chiefly by way of payments to the telecommunications and construction industries. In 1987 three of PTT’s main suppliers, Hasler AG, Gfeller AG, and Autophon Telecom AG, merged with Ascom AG and others to form the Ascom Group, which in 1991 was remedying this dependency by turning to foreign markets. PTT’s outlook, even with increased competition, is fixed on further expansion. The demand for PTT services continues to rise in all sectors—by 5.3% overall in 1989, 3% in postal services, and 7.2% in telecommunications. With 4 million subscribers, Switzerland already has one of the highest telephone penetration levels in the world, and the telephone service accounts for more than half of PTT’s sales. The digitization of PTT networks switches—Swissnet—begun in 1987, is due to be completed before the end of the twentieth century. The NATEL system, introduced in 1978 and subsequently improved and extended, provides mobile services not limited to automobile communication and with a potential capacity of 450,000 users. The PTT City call radio-paging service covers Switzerland, West Germany, and France. Special coaxial cables are used along the walls of the road tunnels through mountain passes for radiophone, radio-paging, and VHF broadcasts. For data transmission, analog, the traditional telecommunications signal, and digital, information encoded as a series of on or off switches contained in circuits of 3 types—telegraph, standard analog telephone type, and broadband—are offered, and over 8,000 are in operation. Telepac, the Swiss PSDN, in the early 1990s had 19 national and 3 international gateway exchanges. The text services available in 1991 included Telex, with over 20,000 connections, giving way in popularity to fax, which has approximately 200,000 users; Videotex, with over 80,000 subscribers and 332 information providers; and Télétex, offering memory-to-memory text transmission, which had 191 lines in service in 1988 and is expected to be another growth area.
A traditional note is struck by PTTs post-buses. They still tootle on their horn the first notes of the “Overture of William Tell” and, in the mailcoach tradition, carry not only letters but also goods and passengers, traveling more than 8,000 kilometers of road. In 1989, 81.2 million passenger journeys were made in this way. In the early 1990s the Swiss PTT had some problems to solve, including increased competition and the need to fund expensive investment and recruitment. However, with growth in the telecommunications sector standing at its highest rate in 20 years, PTT, under its chairman Rudolf Trachsel, could approach the millennium in a positive mood.
Wyss, Arthur, “Die Schweizer Post von ihren Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart,” Archiv för Deutsche Postgeschichte, Frankfurt, 1978; Telecommunications in Switzerland, Bern, General Directorate of Swiss Posts, Telephones and Telegraphs, 1983; Our Post, Bern, General Directorate of Swiss Posts, Telephones and Telegraphs, [n.d.]; Dabbs, P.H., F. Cassidy, and D., Long, “Swiss Bank on Peak Performance,” British Telecom Journal, Volume 5, Number 2, Summer 1984; Lee, Alma, “An Outline of the Problems of the Postal History of Switzerland,” The London Philatelist, Volume 94, Number 1115-16, November-December 1985.