Will Google be upfront about Project Loon?

TOM PULLAR-STRECKER
Last updated 12:42 03/03/2014

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OPINION: If you are adrift in a rowboat in the Pacific, about 44 degrees south of the equator, and are looking at this column on your tablet or smartphone, read on.

Firstly, thanks for visiting press.co.nz. You are probably wondering how you managed to get a wi-fi connection.

The answer is that Google is at it again with its Project Loon initiative to provide internet access from helium balloons.

The company launched 10 balloons from around Timaru in the South Island late last week. They are now drifting towards South America at a speed of about 20 knots.

You can track them via FlightRadar24.com though it may take some practice and patience (flight registration 777777, Loon160 to Loon169).

When Google carried out its first Project Loon trial from Tekapo in June last year it said one aim was to check whether it could provide stable wi-fi coverage over an area by changing the altitude of the balloons to take advantage of different wind currents.

Google's aim was to guide the 30 balloons down to "preselected, safe recovery zones" for reuse and recycling and it had a boat off the east coast of New Zealand to collect any that drifted out to sea.

It obviously didn't know too much about New Zealand winds. The trial was, in my opinion, an abject failure.

It took a month of calls to Google and a call to air traffic controller Airways Corp before the company finally confessed that up to 14 of the balloons had been blown away and lost at sea. One made it as far as South America, according to Airways Corp.

Google has shifted the goalposts and says the purpose of its latest launch is to see if it can establish a "ring of uninterrupted connectivity around the 40th southern parallel".

But that would take thousands of balloons, use vast amounts of helium (a scarce, finite and valuable resource) and create a huge amount of ocean junk; for what benefit? The few people who can't be economically connected to broadband via fixed-line or terrestrial wireless technologies (fewer than 2.2 per cent of people in New Zealand) can already be served by satellite.

The balloons already appear to have spread out over almost 2 degrees of latitude. It's amazing what ridiculousness multinational internet companies can afford when they manage to find tricks to avoid paying corporation tax.

Hopefully this time round, Google will be much more upfront about the real results of the trial and how many balloons it fails to retrieve from the oceans.

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Even "digital believer" Microsoft founder Bill Gates couldn't hold his tongue about Project Loon when he slated it last year.

But back to your situation.

Frankly, I am surprised the balloon-based wi-fi connection lasted long enough for you to be able to finish reading this article. But I'm guessing you probably don't now have enough time to email air-sea rescue. Sorry about that – I should probably have mentioned that earlier.

- Stuff

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