CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand —
There are plenty of catches, including a requirement that anyone using Google Balloon Internet would need a receiver plugged into their computer in order to receive the signal. Google is not talking costs at this point, although they're striving to make both the balloons and receivers as inexpensive as possible, dramatically less than laying cables.
The signals travel in the unlicensed spectrum, which means Google doesn't have to go through the onerous regulatory processes required for Internet providers using wireless communications networks or satellites. In New Zealand, the company worked with the Civil Aviation Authority on the trial. Google chose the country in part because of its remoteness. Cassidy said in the next phase of the trial they hope to get up to 300 balloons forming a ring on the 40th parallel south from New Zealand through Australia, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina.
Christchurch was a symbolic launch site because some residents were cut off from online information for weeks following a 2011 earthquake that killed 185 people. Google believes balloon access could help places suffering natural disasters get quickly back online. Tania Gilchrist, a resident who signed up for the Google trial, feels lucky she lost her power for only about 10 hours on the day of the quake.
"After the initial upheaval, the Internet really came into play," she said. "It was how people coordinated relief efforts and let people know how to get in touch with agencies. It was really, really effective and it wasn't necessarily driven by the authorities."
At Google's mission control in Christchurch this week, a team of jet lagged engineers working at eight large laptops used wind data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to maneuver the balloons over snowy peaks, identifying the wind layer with the desired speed and direction and then adjusting balloons' altitudes so they floated in that layer.