Building Latin America's Internet Past and Future
When Florencio Utreras set about trying to connect his native Chile – and ultimately the rest of Latin America – to the Internet in the ‘80s and ‘90s, he had a lot more than the usual political, policy and funding problems. He also had some major geographical issues to overcome.
There are challenges that continue to dog him in retirement. But the man known as Chile’s “father of the Internet” credits his relentless determination for achieving as much as he has.
“This is what happens when you start bugging people about doing things,” he said. “They say, ‘just do it.’”
His introduction to the Internet began in what he refers to as his previous life, when he was a visiting math professor at Texas A&M University in College Station in the early ‘80s and he got a letter from a colleague and statistician in Wisconsin who told him that her university was deploying this thing called email.
“This was the first time I saw this email address with @ in it. So I went to the computing service in the math department, and they said, ‘we don’t have that, maybe you should go to data processing center,’” he said.
They set him up with an email address, but he had to take his bike across campus in the Texas heat just to get his email. So he finally convinced the University of Wisconsin to let him connect to their system with his own modem.
A year later, he says, he was back in Santiago, where he says he once again resumed bugging people about getting the Internet and email, so much so that they ended up naming him director of the computing center at the University of Santiago.
In his new role, of course, he remained persistent, finally getting the university connected to the academic network BITNET using phone lines connected to a satellite link at a NASA tracking station in Santiago. And when the Pinochet regime fell, he took his case for building that connectivity network out to universities across Chile to the new president of Chile’s National Science Foundation, Enrique d’Etigny.
“In 20 minutes, he said this is what we should do, and Florencio why don’t you help me do it,” Utreras recalls.
His success at building out Internet connections to Chilean universities led to him to “be honest and stop doing math,” he said. He subsequently became head of Chile’s own pioneer academic network, which in 1991 became Red Universitaria Nacional (REUNA), Chile’s National Network for Research and Education.
Once businesses also began clamoring for connectivity, that network was sold off to become a private entity, and Utreras turned his attention to connecting academia to Internet2. In 2005, he went to what was the Latin America equivalent of REUNA, RedCLARA, where he focused on helping the rest of Latin America improve their Internet connections.
In 1999, as leader of Foro de las redes de América Latina y el Caribe, (ENRED), Utreras, in conjunction with a coalition of other organizations, helped create the Latin American and Caribbean Internet Addresses Registry. Around the same time, as a member of Chile's Presidential Committees for Information Society, he contributed to the founding documents of Chile’s growing Internet and network ecosystem.
In 2003, Utreras founded the Latin American Research Networks Cooperation (Cooperación Latinoamericana de Redes Avanzadas) and served as its executive director until June 2017.
In this role, he also contributed to the creation of the Latin American Research and Education backbone and was one of the creators of the BELLA Project, a European Commission-funded effort of the research and education community to own spectrum on a new submarine cable directly linking Europe to South America.
Developing the Latin American backbone, he said, presented many interesting challenges, both in negotiating ways to connect countries across broad swaths of land whose only communications networks mostly relied on submarine cables that circled the continent.
“There was not enough infrastructure,” Utreras said.
One of their biggest projects was laying fiber that connected Latin America from Mexico into Panama City, crossing all of Central America.
That was 3,000 kilometers of fiber, and we managed to do that with the support of the European Commission,” he said. “They gave us enough to support that deployment in 2010.”
Still, he said, Latin America continues to have connectivity challenges, including the fact that all of its Internet connections run through one city in the U.S. That, he says, results in larger latencies to reach European destinations, higher prices and the danger of losing Internet connections if there is a major disaster in the key connection hub of Miami. The recent FCC decision to do away with net neutrality will exacerbate the problems, he said.
“We have just one way out of Latin America, so we need to have good connections to Europe, Africa and Asia,” he said. “Our largest consumers of Chilean products are Asians, so there are plans to build infrastructure into Asia.”