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SpaceX Starlink Comes to South America

This one-year pilot study in rural Chile will be productive and successful.

Starlink “Dishy” antenna on the roof of the John F. Kennedy school

SpaceX has roughly 90,000 Starlink beta test customers in North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand and now they have one in South America—in Sotomó, an isolated town at 41.6° South in Chile’s Lake Region. Chile’s second terminal will be online at a school in Caleta Sierra in a few days and other pilot locations will follow. Twenty families live in Sotomó and it is only accessible by private boats or subsidized services that navigate the Reloncaví Estuary on which it is located. The town has electricity about 12 hours a day thanks to a diesel generator installed by the Lake Region government in 2019.

Javier de la Barra, the teacher in charge of the seven-student John F. Kennedy school where the terminal has been installed, said the service will be available to community members as well as students. Tablets are being provided for the students. He expects Internet connectivity will enrichen and improve the curriculum and student experience. Perhaps more importantly, he expects that it will improve his ability as an educator.

Inside the John F. Kennedy school in Sotomó

My first reaction was that that sounds like a lot to expect from a single 1-200 Mbps Internet connection, but then I remembered that this is a school with seven students and a teacher who is motivated to improve his ability as an educator. Add a local-area network with a server for downloaded courseware like that of the Khan Academy or other teaching material and provide technical and pedagogic support and this sounds like a promising pilot project. It will be most interesting to see what sort of procedures, software, and curricular innovation is developed around a single link to the Internet and if it is replicated, by the online community of educators like Javier de la Barra.

Furthermore, speed and latency will improve with time as SpaceX upgrades its software and, in the long run, the satellite constellation. My guess is that the first equipment upgrade will be a new generator or larger diesel fuel tank so they can be online, perhaps downloading content, more than 12 hours a day.

It will also be interesting to hear how the community members use their access. I don’t know anything about the Sotomó economy, so I can’t speculate on business applications, but there is at least one tourism business, Termas de Sotomó (Sotomó Hot Springs), which already has a Web site. (Perhaps it uses a geosynchronous satellite ISP). In addition to business applications, I’ll bet a lot of movies and other entertainment content will be downloaded, and a thriving sneaker net—sharing files on flash drives—will evolve. How long will it be before someone develops a system that takes requests for unattended downloads? (For an idea of the breadth of material that can circulate on a sneakernet, see this look at the contents of one week of Cuba’s “weekly package”).

In the early days of the Internet, my colleagues and I studied its diffusion and application in developing nations, including Chile. Sotomó and other pilots present us with a fresh opportunity to study the applications and social and individual impact of today’s Internet on a new, “greenfield” community.

At the time of our early studies, Chile was arguably the most advanced networking nation in Latin America and Chile’s GDP per capita is second only to Uraguay in South America and 50% greater than that of third-place Argentina. Furthermore, the government and telecommunications industry recognize Chile’s significant digital divide and are committed to rectifying it. (This was not lost on SpaceX—they established a Chilean foreign affiliate entity in July 2019). Given that background, I would not be surprised to see SpaceX Starlink become part of Chile’s future rural connectivity infrastructure.

The opening ceremony for the Sotomó project was attended by the Chilean Minister of Transport and Telecommunications, Gloria Hutt, who said:

The arrival of Starlink in Sotomó marks a before-and-after in terms of digital inclusion for our country. This revolutionary technology will allow us to bring high-speed connectivity to the most extreme points of our immense and varied geography, democratizing internet access and all the benefits it brings in favor of multiple areas of our lives.

That statement is reminiscent of the rosy vision that many, including me, had in the early, academic years of the Internet, but we were naive. We have since learned that the Internet enables Nigerian princes, fake news, filter bubbles, etc., along with the good stuff.

Chilean prosperity, combined with economic inequality (the Chilean Gini coefficient is fourth highest in South America), has led to violent protests and deep political division. Chile should heed the experience of the United States and other nations and be aware of the social and political risks that may attend enhanced rural connectivity.

I don’t want to end on a negative note. As Minister Hutt observed, rural connectivity and reduction of the digital divide, will in itself diminish the economic and cultural inequality at the heart of Chilean unrest.

Update August 11, 2021:

I spoke with someone from Sotomó today and learned that there is also a clinic in the school building—paving the way for medical information retrieval, remote medical consultation and telemedicine.

Update Aug 20, 2021

For a lightly edited machine translation of this post into Spanish, click here and let me know of corrections to the translation.

By Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University

He has been on the faculties of the University of Lund, Sweden and the University of Southern California, and worked for IBM and the System Development Corporation. Larry maintains a blog on Internet applications and implications at cis471.blogspot.com and follows Cuban Internet development at laredcubana.blogspot.com.

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