By Pablo Sanhueza
SOTOMO: After a half-hour windswept journey on foot and by boat through a rugged wooded estuary to the school he attends in remote southern Chile, Diego Guerrero can finally access the internet.
His school is located in the hamlet of Sotomo, about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) south of the capital Santiago in the Los Lagos region and inhabited by only 20 families.
A scattering of brightly painted wood and tin houses, Sotomo stands out as a row of mist-covered rock outcrops jutting out into the Pacific Ocean. It is only accessible by boat.
For decades, its inhabitants have survived by catching mussels and fish for sale in the market, a five-hour round trip by boat.
Today, it is one of two locations in Chile to be chosen for a pilot project led by billionaire Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, to receive free internet access for a year.
Starlink, a division of SpaceX, aims to deploy 12,000 satellites as part of a low-earth orbit network to provide low-latency high-speed internet services around the world, with particular emphasis on remote areas that terrestrial internet infrastructure is struggling to reach.
Since October, it has offered a “Better Than Nothing Beta” program to subscribers in the United States, while conducting pilot tests in other countries. In Chile, a second branch will be installed in Caleta Sierra, a small fishing port near the arid deserts of the north.
The plan is key to generating the funds SpaceX needs to fund Musk’s dream of developing a new rocket capable of flying paying customers to the moon and possibly attempting to colonize Mars.
For Diego, 7, a stable internet is already a dream.
“I really like the Internet because we can do our homework,” he said. “It’s faster so we can do more.”
Starlink did not respond to a request for comment from Reuters. SpaceX COO Gwynne Shotwell said in a July statement about the Chilean pilot: “Starlink was designed for remote communities like Caleta Sierra and Sotomo. Broadband connectivity can have an impact transformational on these communities. “
ENLARGEMENT OF HORIZONS
Diego’s favorite subject at school is math. He wants to be a sailor and loves to go out on his father Carlos’ fishing boat.
Carlos, 40, has more ambitious plans for his son and hopes that the window to the world that the new Internet connection will offer him will broaden his horizons.
He takes Diego to school every day by boat, often battling the wind and rain to get him there.
“I didn’t have the option of going to school so you do it regardless of the conditions, rain or shine or pandemic, even if it’s difficult,” he said.
“If he has a good education he has this option and is eager to do it, then you have all the hopes of any father, that maybe one day all the children of Sotomo will be able to access professional jobs. . “
Using tablets provided by the Ministry of Education, the school’s seven students can now access online learning materials, watch movies, take virtual tours of museums and try out video calls with children from other schools.
Their only teacher at John F Kennedy School in Sotomo, Javier de la Barra, said he was also eager to use it for his professional development.
The signal is received via a satellite dish installed on the roof of the school, which transmits via a Wi-Fi device to most of its facilities and to the outdoor terrace. Eventually, it is planned to extend it to the rest of the hamlet.
It only operates from noon to midnight, due to a limited supply of diesel from the generator that powers Sotomo.
Nonetheless, said de la Barra, this is a significant step forward in the spotty mobile internet signal that residents can currently get on their phones by leaning out of windows or paddling in the bay.
The Starlink antennas were installed in July and inaugurated earlier this month in a ceremony attended by Minister of Transport and Telecommunications Gloria Hutt.
She said she hoped Starlink would prove essential in bridging Chile and the wider region’s digital divide – an issue exposed with the advent of coronavirus lockdowns that have left people without a good internet. who find it difficult to work or study.
Chile has one of the highest internet penetration rates on the continent, with 21 million mobile internet connections among its population of 19 million as of March 2021, according to government figures.
But as Sotomo’s families can attest, having mobile internet doesn’t mean you can always get a signal.
“I love living here,” said Carlos Guerrero. “It’s quiet, my family is stress free, but we lack connectivity, roads, electricity and clean water.
“What would be great is if all of these services could be extended to our community, not just a small part, so that everyone can benefit.”