After half an hour of walking and boating through the rugged forest estuary, to the school he attended in a remote area of southern Chile, Diego Guerrero was finally able to access the Internet.
His school is located in the small village of Sotomo, about 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) south of the capital Santiago. It is located in the Los Lagos region and has only 20 families.
Sotomo is a row of brightly colored wooden and pewter houses wetted by rain. It stands out against a row of rocky outcrops that extend into the Pacific Ocean. It can only be reached by boat.
For decades, residents here have survived by catching mussels and fish for sale in the market, taking a five-hour boat trip back and forth.
Now, it is one of two places where Chile has been selected as a pilot project run by SpaceX CEO billionaire Elon Musk, with free Internet access for one year.
Starlink is a division of SpaceX and its goal is to launch 12,000 satellites as part of a low-Earth orbit network to provide low-latency broadband Internet services worldwide, with special attention to remote areas that are difficult to reach by terrestrial Internet infrastructure.
Since October, it has been offering the “Better Than Nothing Beta” program to US subscribers and is also conducting pilot trials in other countries. In Chile, the second antenna will be installed near Caleta Sierra, a small fishing port near the arid northern desert.
This plan is the key to obtaining the funds needed by SpaceX to fund Musk’s dream of developing a new rocket that can send paying customers to the moon and eventually try to colonize Mars.
For the 7-year-old Diego, 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 things.”
Starlink did not respond to Reuters’ request for comment. SpaceX Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell said in a July statement about Chilean pilots: “Starlink was designed for remote communities such as Caleta Sierra and Sotomo. High-speed connections can have a transformative impact on these communities.”
Broaden your horizons
Diego’s favorite subject in school is mathematics. He wants to be a sailor and likes to go to sea on his father Carlos’ fishing boat.
Carlos, 40, has made more ambitious plans for his son and hopes to open a window to the world through a new Internet connection, thereby broadening his horizons.
He takes Diego to school by boat every day, and he often fights with wind and rain to get him there.
He said: “I have no choice to go to school, so no matter what the conditions are, the weather is good or bad or the pandemic, even if there are difficulties, you have to go to school.”
“If he is well-educated, he has the choice and is eager to do it, then you have all the hope of any father, and maybe one day all the children of Sotomo can continue to engage in professional work.”
Using a tablet provided by the Ministry of Education, seven students in the school can now access online learning materials, watch movies, visit virtual museums, and try to make video calls with children from other schools.
Javier de la Barra, their only teacher at John F Kennedy School in Sotomo, said he also looks forward to using it for professional development.
The signal is received through a satellite antenna installed on the roof of the school, which is transmitted to most of its facilities and outdoor terraces via Wi-Fi equipment. Ultimately, the plan is to expand it to the rest of the small village.
It only works from noon to midnight because the diesel supply for the generators that power Sotomo is restricted.
Nonetheless, de la Barra said, this is a major advancement for the scattered mobile Internet signals where residents can use their mobile phones by leaning out of the window or rowing into the bay.
The Starlink antenna was installed in July and completed earlier this month at a ceremony attended by the Minister of Transport and Telecommunications Gloria Hutt.
She said that she hopes Starlink can be the key to bridging the digital divide between Chile and the wider region-a problem that has been exposed with the emergence of the coronavirus lockdown, which makes it difficult for people without a good Internet to work or study.
According to government data, Chile has one of the highest Internet penetration rates on the African continent. As of March 2021, there are 21 million mobile Internet connections among its 19 million population.
But as Sotomo’s family proved, having a mobile internet doesn’t mean you can get a signal at any time.
“I like to live here,” Carlos Guerrero said. “It’s quiet here, my family is not stressed, but we do lack connectivity, roads, electricity and drinking water.
“It would be great if all these services can be extended to our community, not just a small part, so that everyone can enjoy them.”
© Thomson Reuters 2021