Fed Farmers given secret briefing on Google balloon

OPERATION LOON: Google's Project X division gets balloon-powered internet off the ground in Tekapo.
OPERATION LOON: Google's Project X division gets balloon-powered internet off the ground in Tekapo.

Google gave Federated Farmers a secret briefing on its balloon-powered internet project a week before launching the pilot in Canterbury.

Google Loon, led by the search giant's special Project X division, was launched in Tekapo on June 15. It deploys balloons with internet equipment on board to create an internet network which at present is being tested by 50 people in Canterbury. Such networks can be deployed temporarily, in the event of a natural disaster, or permanently, in remote areas that do not have internet coverage.If the pilot project is successful, Google will look at commercialising it.

Even when the Government's rural broadband initiative deployment is completed in three years' time, 40,000 New Zealand homes will still be beyond the reach of the internet through a conventional connection.

Federated Farmers chief executive Conor English, who was briefed on the emerging technology by Google, said the importance of an internet connection in rural areas should not be underestimated. "Rural people are people too. It's right up there along with water and human capability," Mr English said. "I have got half a dozen kids who if you take a [internet-connected] screen off them, they start climbing the wall. I am no different.

"We absolutely have to have broadband in rural communities and this loon thing has got its focus on complementing the existing networks."

Better internet connectivity in rural areas where there is none at present could lead to a migration of workers from some of the cities, Mr English said.

"There's something like 4.8 billion people in the world that don't have access to the internet.

"If they can get it to work in New Zealand, which is long and thin, they should be able to get it to work anywhere."

Google spokeswoman Annie Baxter told the Waikato Times: "Our hope is that this technology could potentially connect people around the world who currently have little or no internet access.

"Serving rural areas is a complicated challenge and we're at the very early days of this project, but it has been heartening to see the response from rural New Zealand."