Big Interview

Connecting continents - Chile to Antarctica

Subsecretario Moreno 1.jpg

Natalie Bannerman speaks to Francisco Moreno, Chile’s undersecretary of telecoms, about how the Antarctic Connection project will bolster the country’s position as a leading digital hub

When thinking of Antarctica, very rarely does one think of Latin America. Despite the continents’ close proximity, the first subsea cable connecting the two was only recently confirmed.

Announced in November 2021, this ground-breaking project sees Desarrollo País (Country Development), Chile’s Undersecretariat of Telecommunications (Subtel) and the Regional Government

of Magallanes develop a fibre optic cable to connect Antarctica to the rest of the world via Chile.

At the time Patricio Rey Sommer, general manager at Country Development, said: “This milestone is the beginning of a long journey that aims to provide Antarctica with a connection to the global high-speed network.

“This infrastructure could bring the white continent considerably closer to the world, and allow the sharing of scientific information in real time with research centres around the planet.”

While Jorge Flies, regional governor of Magallanes, spoke of the isolation faced by the continent before this project was formally announced.

“For the regional government of Magallanes and Chilean Antarctica, the historical characteristics of which as a region have been isolation, the possibility of being connected to the world through fibre optics is a fundamental element of being part of the 21st century,” said Flies.

“An advance from the Austral Fiber Optic, an Antarctic fibre route would have a great impact, not only for the Magallanes Region, but also for the history of Chile and the international agreement of the Antarctic Treaty,” he added.

One of the signatories to the agreement was Francisco Moreno, Chile’s undersecretary of telecommunications, Capacity spoke to Moreno about this new infrastructure, which is known as the Antarctic Connection project.

“The Antarctic Connection project is a relevant and iconic initiative that will connect, for the first time, the Antarctic territory to the American continent through a submarine fibre optic system. This represents a profound advance for the connectivity of the different bases that operate in Antarctica,” says Moreno.

The system will also serve as a tool for academia and scientific researchers, as it will enable large amounts of data to be transmitted and instruments to be managed remotely. Specifically, the Antarctic Connection project aims to connect King George Island in Antarctica to Puerto Williams in Chile’s Navarino Island – the world’s southernmost city.

Chile’s Ministry of Science, Technology, Knowledge and Innovation said the Antarctic “is one of the most important research sites on the planet, given the unique characteristics it offers. It currently presents numerous research initiatives with the aim of studying global phenomena such as climate change, evolutionary and ecological processes, and astronomy, among others”.

“[The Antarctica Connection project] will allow interconnection to different infrastructure projects that have been designed or deployed over the last few years and reflects President Sebastián Piñera’s and his administration’s commitment to digital connectivity,” says Moreno.

Such interconnected projects are part of the Chile’s Southern Optical Fiber Project, or Fibra Óptica Austral (FOA), which spans more than 4,620km of subsea and terrestrial fibre optic connectivity.

“In the near future, the Southern Optical Fiber will be linked to the Humboldt submarine cable that will connect Sydney Harbour with Valparaiso Port, and to the Border Complexes Connectivity Project, which will provide connectivity to Argentina and Brazil. In this way, data from Antarctica could be distributed to anywhere on the planet,” says Moreno.

Subsea projects that connect to colder climates have experienced their share of challenges due to the unpredictability of ice, potential damage to cables and the difficulties of carrying out installation work in sub-zero temperatures. It is often a long and arduous task that requires a great deal of planning.

“The first challenge is of a geographical nature,” explains Moreno. “For this reason, together with the public enterprise, Desarrollo País, a consultation with the market has been launched, so that different stakeholders in telecommunications can provide their vision of what a future feasibility study of the [Antarctica Connection] project would be like and the components that it must include.

“For this reason, a market consultation was carried out to define what aspects should be included in the design of the Antarctic Connection cable,” he says.

This consultation, which closed on 25 February, provides the technical information needed to design the bidding requirements to study the technical, legal, geopolitical, economic and financial feasibility and potential impact on the scientific world of the subsea cable’s construction and eventual connections with the international bases and research centres across the Antarctic Peninsula and its nearby islands.

The system will connect via cable landing stations at its various landing points. Moreno says this decision was based on the project’s feasibility study, which was launched in January 2022.

The project’s link with the Fibra Óptica Austral project in Puerto Williams will create another access point to what Moreno calls “a robust digital infrastructure network including the National Fiber Optic (Fibra Óptica Nacional), the Humboldt Cable, Fiber Optic Projects in Border Complexes, in addition to potential connections to private systems”.

The 14,00km, US$388 million, Humboldt Cable will link Chile and South America with Asia and Oceania, through the South Pacific.

“Until now, Brazil and Argentina have adhered to this ambitious project that will stimulate the digital economy of the countries of the southern cone and that once again ratifies Chile’s leadership in Latin America, positioning itself as a true digital hub in the region,” adds Moreno.

“The two countries that have confirmed their participation are highly relevant and will give way to the creation of a digital market that can serve more than 600 million users. We also hope that more neighbouring countries will also join this initiative, since regional integration is key to the development, digitisation and modernisation of South America.”

The recently inaugurated Fibra Óptica Nacional is a government subsidised project of $90 million to deploy 10,000km of fibre optic connectivity from Arica to Puerto Montt. More than 3.7 million people in 202 communities are set to benefit from it.

“They are complementary projects,” explains Moreno. “Both will be connected through the Southern Optical Fiber in Puerto Williams, which will allow the Antarctic Connection project to gain access to all the country’s connections, including the National Optical Fiber project. Together, the two projects will reinforce Chile’s fibre optic connectivity and strengthen the connectivity of our country.”

Connectivity infrastructure projects aside, December saw Sebastián Piñera, Chilé’s president, and Gloria Hutt, the Minister of Transport and Telecommunications, activate 5G for the first time in Chile, making the country the first in Latin America to do so.

“The deployment of 5G technology in telephony and mobile services will not only allow greater speeds and data transmission capacity with lower latency or network response time, but represents a transformational technology which will have a relevant impact in a number of productive sectors,” says Moreno.

“At the same time, it will generate around 68,000 new jobs within two years and, in the short term, we also expect additional employment between 2,500 to 3,000 people associated with the deployment of radiant systems in Chile’s 16 regions.”

With thousands of micro, small and medium-sized businesses able to leverage such innovations like the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence and big data, Moreno says machine learning will create “a strong boost in economic reactivation”.

From a sector-specific perspective, industries such as agriculture, forestry, mining and fishing, will also benefit from 5G according to Moreno, as it will enable the real-time monitoring and analysis of crops, recording of high-definition

images and data on environmental variables such as temperature and humidity, supporting greater decision making and increasing productivity.

“The port industry will also have important tools to train crane operators through virtual reality with immersive experiences. In the health sector, the 5G network will greatly improve telemedicine and the development of remote diagnoses, which will be of great importance to fill the lack of specialists in regions, mainly in extreme or isolated areas,” he adds.

“In mining, the 5G network, together with robotics, will make it possible to detect toxic gases, monitor the conditions of plants and inspect the development of works, and even generate intelligent ventilation systems,” he continues.

With a full pipeline of projects in the works the strategic priorities for Moreno and his team in 2022 will be continuing its 5G rollout strategy and the expansion of high-speed fixed networks.

“We will continue pursuing our digital inclusion strategy, increasing the coverage of sectors that currently have low penetration indicators for fixed and mobile networks, and we will consolidate the digital hub model across the continent through the deployment of the Humboldt Cable, giving way to a single digital market,” says Moreno.

Moreno and his team will also continue to execute Chile’s 2019 Digital Matrix development plan, which aims to define and respect the rights of digital citizens, improve investment and infrastructure, and reduce the digital divide by 2022. Moreno says they hope their work “will be continued by the new administration”.

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