WELLINGTON – When Google chose New Zealand to unveil secret plans for a balloon-driven Wi-Fi network last weekend, it cemented the country’s reputation as a trial site for global tech companies looking to test their latest innovations.
Industry experts said New Zealand, tucked away deep in the Southern Hemisphere, offers a tech-savvy, English-speaking population where firms such as Google and Facebook can quietly test new products without risking major fallout if anything goes wrong.
“We tend to be early adopters — any technology that reduces the tyranny of distance we’re keen on,” said Malcolm Fraser of the Auckland-based Future Cities Institute. “We’re a small market, which means it doesn’t cost that much to test something here and if anything screws up we’re far enough from major markets for it not to have a spillover effect.”
Facebook has enthusiastically used New Zealanders as guinea pigs, last year testing a project where users could pay to make their posts more prominent on friends’ news feeds. It also first rolled out its timeline feature in New Zealand in 2011, saying at the time: “New Zealand is a good place to start because it’s English-speaking, so we can read the feedback and make improvements quickly.”
LinkedIn, the world’s largest professional social network, also tested its endorsement feature in New Zealand last year, but Fraser said the country had been a laboratory for experimental technology since the mid-1980s, when the world’s first electronic payment system was introduced.
In the early 2000s, telecoms giant Vodafone debugged the GPRS network that replaced dial-up Internet connections for Kiwis before releasing it globally.
“It comes down to the fact that (New Zealand) is a perfect microcosm of a global community,” said Candace Kinser from technology industry group NZITC. “Auckland has immigrants as more than 50 percent of its population, from nearly every country in the world (and) Kiwis take up technology rapidly and use it well.”
Fraser said hosting leading-edge projects helped boost New Zealand’s IT sector, which boasts world leaders in sectors such as computer gaming and digital special effects.
“When these organizations come along, they don’t bring their whole R & D department, they just bring one or two key people, along with the new product or technology. So we get quite a lot of benefit from that, in terms of people in our technology getting trained up to fill the void,” he said.
Google’s foray into New Zealand, dubbed Project Loon, is perhaps the most ambitious high-tech test carried out in the country, aiming to bring Internet to the two-thirds of the global population currently without Web access. It involved sending 30 helium-filled balloons to the edge of space above the South Island on Saturday, each carrying transmitters capable of beaming Wi-Fi Internet access down to antennae below.
The ultimate goal is an army of thousands of such balloons creating a network that provides online access anywhere in the world.
The first person to access the Web under the project was dairy farmer Charles Nimmo, who said he appreciated the chance to work with one of the world’s largest companies to push the boundaries of technology.
“It’s been weird,” he told The New Zealand Herald. “But it’s been exciting to be part of something new.”