Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites broadcast the Internet to a remote Chilean fishing village


After half an hour of windswept travel on foot and by boat through a rugged forest estuary to the school he attended in the remote south of Chile, Diego Guerrero finally had access to the Internet.

His school is located in the hamlet of Sotomo, around 1,000 kilometers south of the capital Santiago in the Los Lagos region, and is inhabited by only 20 families.

Sotomo is a rain-soaked collection of brightly painted wooden and tin houses and stands out against a mist-shrouded row of rocky outcrops that jut out into the Pacific Ocean. It can only be reached by boat.

For decades, its residents have survived by catching clams and fish to sell at the market, which is a five-hour boat ride away.

A father and son arrive at the John F. Kennedy School in the village of Sotomo, Chile
Photo credit: Reuters / Pablo Sanhueza

Now it’s one of two places in Chile chosen for a pilot by billionaire Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, to get free internet for a year.

Starlink, a division of SpaceX, is committed to introducing 12,000 satellites as part of a low-earth orbit network to deliver low-latency broadband Internet services around the world, with a particular focus on remote areas that are difficult to access terrestrial Internet infrastructure can reach.

Since October it has been offering a “Better Than Nothing Beta” program to subscribers in the US and is also conducting pilot tests in other countries. In Chile, a second antenna will be installed in Caleta Sierra, a small fishing port near the arid deserts in the north.

The plan is key to generating the funds SpaceX needs to fund Musk’s dream of developing a new rocket that can fly paying customers to the moon and eventually attempt to colonize Mars.

For Diego, 7 years old, stable internet is a dream enough.

“I really like the internet because we can do homework,” he said. “It’s faster so we can do more of it.”

Starlink did not respond to a Reuters request for comment. Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s chief operating officer, said in a statement in July about the Chilean pilot, “Starlink is designed for remote communities like those in Caleta Sierra and Sotomo.

Broaden horizons

Diego’s favorite subject at school is math. He wants to be a seaman and loves going out on his father Carlos’ fishing boat.

Carlos, 40, has more ambitious plans for his son and hopes that the window on the world that the new internet connection gives him broadens his horizons.

He takes Diego to school by boat every day and often battles the wind and rain to get him there.

starlink spacex internet chile sotomo shop pablo sanhueza reuters starlink_spacex_internet_chile_sotomo_shop_pablo_sanhueza_reuters

A man stands in the doorway of one of only two shops in the village of Sotomo, Chile
Photo credit: Reuters / Pablo Sanhueza

“I didn’t get the chance to go to school so you do it regardless of the conditions, good or bad weather, or a pandemic, even if it’s difficult,” he said.

“If he has a good education, he has this opportunity and is eager for it, then you have all the hopes of every father that maybe one day all the children from Sotomo can get into a job.”

The school’s seven students can now use tablets from the Ministry of Education to access online learning materials, watch films, make virtual museum visits and try out video calls with children from other schools.

Her only teacher at Sotomo’s John F Kennedy School, Javier de la Barra, said he looks forward to using her for professional development too.

The signal is received via a satellite dish installed on the school roof, which is broadcast to most facilities and the outdoor terrace via a Wi-Fi device. Finally, there are plans to expand it to the rest of the hamlet.

It only works from noon to midnight as the generator that powers Sotomo is powered by diesel.

Nonetheless, de la Barra said, it is a significant step forward from the patchy mobile internet signal that residents can currently get on their phones by leaning out the window or paddling out into the bay.

The Starlink antennas were installed in July and inaugurated earlier this month in a ceremony attended by Transport and Telecommunications Minister Gloria Hutt.

She said she hoped Starlink would prove to be key in bridging the digital divide in Chile and the wider region – an issue that was exposed with the rise of coronavirus lockdowns that people without good internet have left to watch work or study.

According to the government, Chile has one of the highest Internet penetration rates on the continent with 21 million mobile Internet connections and a population of 19 million (as of March 2021).

But as the families in Sotomo can attest, mobile internet doesn’t mean you always have a signal.

“I love living here,” said Carlos Guerrero. “It’s quiet, my family is stress-free, but we lack connectivity, roads, electricity and drinking water.

“It would be great if all of these ministries could be extended to our community, not just a small portion, for everyone to enjoy.”

© Thomson Reuters 2021


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