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How Will Rural Chileans Use SpaceX Starlink?

Sotomó is 3-5 hours by boat and car from the nearest airport.

How will the people in the test towns use the Internet during this year-long pilot study, and how will it impact individuals and organizations?

The Chilean Undersecretary of Telecommunications (SUBTEL) has begun a year-long pilot study of SpaceX’s Starlink satellite Internet service. I don’t know how many test locations they are planning, but the first two have been selected. Last week I discussed the first, the John F. Kennedy school in Sotomó, an isolated town at 41.6° South on a fjord in Chile’s Lake Region, and the second will be in Caleta Sierra on the coast about 1,200 miles north of Sotomó. SpaceX is also considering a European pilot study in Georgia and perhaps (hopefully) others.

These pilot studies provide an opportunity to learn what applications the people in a newly connected, remote location want and use and to study the impact of the Internet on individuals, organizations, and society in the community.

In the early days of the Internet, my colleagues and I used a six-dimension framework for assessing its state in developing nations, and one of those dimensions was sectoral absorption—the extent to which the Internet was being used for business, education, health care, public administration, and, after an interview with a wise Indian professor, I added entertainment.

The Starlink terminal in Sotomó is installed in a school building, so the first application will be grammar school education. The children have already begun using online educational material. When the teacher in charge of the Kennedy School, Javier de la Barra, was asked how he saw the school using the Internet link, he replied that, among other things, he looked forward to using it for his professional development.

While a single Starlink connection cannot support simultaneous interactive online education for an entire community, downloadable interactive material like that of Learning Equality and other recorded educational material (broadly defined) can be downloaded and served locally. It will be interesting to see what educational material is accessed during the year of the pilot study, who accesses it, and what they think of its value.

I spoke with Claudio Fuentes, whose family operates a summer resort and an aquaculture farm in Sotomó. He is now a professor in Wales but returns to Sotomó every year and spent all his summers there before moving to Europe. One of the things he told me was that there is also a clinic at the schoolhouse. Starlink will enable medical information retrieval, remote medical consultation, and telemedicine, and, like professor de la Barra, people working at the clinic can use the Internet for professional development.

Business is another one of the sectors we measured, and professor Fuentes told me that the two major businesses in Sotomó are small tourist resorts and aquaculture—raising baby mussel “seeds” for sale to other aquafarmers and raising adult mussels. His family does both, and they have a simple Web site for their resort and can communicate with customers and suppliers using mobile phones, but he says mobile data is very expensive for the people of Sotomó, and they mainly use their phones to communicate with each other. Furthermore, de la Barra says the signal is patchy, and residents get on their phones by leaning out windows or paddling out into the bay. Might a fast, stable Internet connection enable a resort to maintain an elaborate website and reservation system? Might a mussel farmer search for and talk with suppliers and customers and find information on research and techniques in the field?

In addition to operating procedures, one can envision both businesses and the general population using the Internet to retrieve government information and file taxes, apply for licenses and conduct other government transactions.

With only a single Internet link, individual entertainment, like educational material, will mostly be downloaded—movies, telenovelas, games, etc. I suspect that a robust “sneakernet” will develop offline with people exchanging files on flash drives. This can be done within a community like Sotomó or on a wider scale. The foremost example I know of is El Paquete Semanal, a weekly package of entertainment, news, software, etc., that circulates throughout Cuba. El Paquete may be Cuba’s largest private employer and you can see the contents of a typical week here.

While most entertainment will be downloaded, there may be occasions for community viewing outside of school hours, for example, watching soccer games on weekends or streaming movies to a large display during the evenings.

When we did our early Internet studies, we totally overlooked the potential of the Internet as a news medium—there were few online papers and magazines and no blogs or social media at the time. It will be interesting to see what news sources the community decides to download and make available. This is particularly important at this time since Chile is undergoing heated political debate, and a new constitution is being written. The constraint of limited connectivity might be an advantage in the case of news since personal, interactive social media, a major source of division and false information, will not be practical. Instead, the community will have to agree on a slate of downloaded news sources, and that process in itself might lead to positive dialog.

I’ve speculated on some possible applications we might see in Sotomó and the other pilot cities—the services and content they may produce and consume. I am sure there will be others I have not thought of—Sotomó is not Los Angeles. The most important things we will learn are how, after a year, the people have used the Internet and how it has impacted individuals and organizations in the test towns.

Update Aug 25, 2021:

For a lightly-edited Spanish language version of this post, click here.

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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