16 Jun 2013

Google balloon project a boost for rural areas - Fed Farmers

6:35 am on 16 June 2013

Federated Farmers says Google's plan to beam wireless internet from balloons 20 kilometres above the Earth could provide near total broadband coverage for rural communities.

The internet company's plan, named Project Loon, was launched in Canterbury on Saturday, when giant helium-filled balloons carrying antennae linked to ground base stations provided internet access for 50 homes in the region.

About 50 people chosen to take part in the trial were able to link to the internet. Signals were successfully beamed from another part of New Zealand to the 15-metre diameter balloons and then to the users' homes.

Federated Farmers vice-president William Rolleston says the new technology could plug gaps in the Government's rural broadband initiative which leaves about a quarter of rural areas without good internet access.

"The technology that's coming on stream for farmers is just getting more and more sophisticated every day and they need to be connected to be able to make that run properly."

Internet New Zealand acting chief executive Jordan Carter said the project will complement the Government's ultra fast broadband plans and bring internet access to areas where fibre technology is too expensive.

The technology will be trialled in Australia next year, possibly in Tasmania, AAP reports.

Google sees it as one day being instrumental in providing internet access to disaster zones, where communications have been destroyed.

The internet company believes the technology could also be used as a relatively cheap way to provide at least 3G speed web access to remote and poorer areas of the world.

Google's ultimate goal is to have a ring of balloons circling the earth, ensuring there is no part of the globe that cannot access the internet.

Project Loon has been in development since mid-2011 by scientists at the Google X research lab, which has previously produced a driverless car and the Google Glass augmented reality spectacles.

The design lab plans to trial the internet balloons, which can stay in the air for up to 100 days, in Australia by mid-2014 and also in Argentina.

The Southern Hemisphere, specifically the 40th parallel south, has been chosen for the trial partly because of the stratospheric conditions, with the balloons' movements controlled from the ground by harnessing winds and solar power.