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 had access to the Internet.
His school is located in the small village of Sotomo, about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) 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 wood and tin houses drenched in rain, contrasting with the mist of a row of rocky outcrops protruding 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 in Chile selected as a pilot project run by SpaceX CEO billionaire Elon Musk, with one year of free internet service.
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 around the world, 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 U.S. subscribers and is also conducting trials in other countries.
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 the fishing boat of his father Carlos.
Carlos, 40, has made more ambitious plans for his son and hopes to open a window to the world for him 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 didn’t choose the option of going to school, so no matter what the conditions are, the weather is good or bad, or the pandemic, you have to go to school even if there are difficulties.”
“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, the school’s seven students can now access online learning materials, watch movies, take virtual museum tours 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 that 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 through WiFi 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 that residents can now get their cellphones by leaning out of the window or rowing into the bay.
The Starlink antenna was installed in July and opened earlier this month at a ceremony attended by the Minister of Transport and Telecommunications, Gloria Hutt. The second antenna will be installed in Caleta Sierra, a small fishing port near the arid northern desert.
She said that she hopes that 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, people can’t access a good Internet, work or study.
According to government data, Chile has one of the highest Internet penetration rates on the African continent. As of March 2022, 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 always receive the signal.
“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.”