You know you’ve got something people really want when they run after the vehicle you’re in to try to get it.
That was the situation last year when a group of us from Viasat were in Mexico as part of our Community Wi-Fi trials. People previously unable to get any kind of internet service were so excited to get online that they were literally chasing after our truck to learn when they could get online, too.
The answer will be soon for most of Mexico, with parts of the northern end of the country already getting service. In early April, together with our partner Prosperist, we will begin offering service from our new ViaSat-2 satellite, which covers nearly all of Mexico. In addition to rural areas, we’ll also cover cities and towns throughout Mexico. While those areas may get service similar to what we offer in the U.S., we know people in many parts of the country can’t afford individual service to their home.
For Viasat, it was important to serve these people as well.
Even as the developed world sees internet speeds rising with each passing year, there are still many populations that have little to no connectivity whatsoever — especially in rural areas. While many of these people have mobile phones, their ability to get online where they live is severely limited. That translates into a huge lost opportunity, since those without internet cannot easily be part of the global economy. They can’t take advantage of things like e-learning, online news sources, shopping, telemedicine — not to mention streaming video on YouTube and all the other entertainment and communications options delivered via internet.
For people in these small villages, internet connectivity represents freedom, opportunity, education, and a wide world beyond their borders that beckons with the promise of 21st century technology.
But with traditional internet service providers unlikely to ever come to their town, and with cell service spotty or nonexistent, how can they tap into this vast reservoir of information?
Building a solution
To get an idea of how Viasat could begin addressing this with our satellite technology, we kicked off a trial last year using coverage from our legacy satellites in northern Mexico.
We went in knowing a few things, one being that there was a large, pent-up demand for service, particularly in rural areas. As it is in the U.S., most urban areas in Mexico are fairly well served with internet, but much less so as you head out into the rural areas of the country.
Another thing we knew was that the kind of residential service we offer here in the U.S. wouldn’t be affordable to many of these people in rural Mexico. So, if you can’t serve every home with its own dish — as we do in the U.S. — how do you get people the service they need in an affordable manner?
The answer is with Wi-Fi hotspots. The best way to do this, we found, was to partner with a boots-on-the-ground partner in Mexico. They’d locate a building in a central part of the town — typically a small grocery store or sometimes even a private home — and install one of our satellite dishes on the roof. Then, instead of connecting just to the inside of the building, the signal would be made available through a powerful Wi-Fi access point on the outside of the building.
Once that was in place, it was then a matter of determining how to price access to the service that was both affordable for the customers and practical from a business point of view. We experimented with a number of different models, finally arriving at a few simple plans that offered access by time or data. The goal is to offer affordable options competitive with cellular service and with full access to the internet to stream video and browse the web.
Finally, we had to dial-in the logistics of just how the transaction takes place. After some experimentation, we created a relatively simple system that uses cash on one end and a digital portal on the other. The customer picks the plan, pays with cash and receives a PIN code allowing access via an online portal — similar to one you might see for a hotel’s Wi-Fi service.
From there, it’s just a matter of the customer’s device maintaining line-of-sight with the access point and keeping within a few hundred feet (although that can vary based on the device, the terrain, etc.). Some of the hotspots have seating areas, while at others people might just sit in their car, on the floor or, in the case of one Mexican police officer I saw, on his motorcycle.
While this may not sound ideal for those of us used to having Wi-Fi in the comfort of our home or business, people who had no access at all before this are thrilled to be online regardless of where they are. Some will Skype a relative or jump on WhatsApp to message friends. Others download music or stream YouTube videos, pay some bills, do homework or just browse social media.
It’s no exaggeration to say Viasat Community Wi-Fi is a life-changing connection, not unlike bringing running water or electricity to those without.
I’m proud and excited to be part of this new way of delivering internet to those who need it. Seeing the joy on the faces of people young and old as they’re able to get online is incredibly rewarding. Even more intriguing is knowing how these early adopters will inform how we deliver service to similar populations around the world.
As we ramp up service with ViaSat-2 in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, we’ll use this Community Wi-Fi model in many areas in much the same way we have with these trial hotspots. With more than 500 already in place and many more expected soon all around Mexico, we’re taking what we’re learning and formulating plans to expand globally in places such as Central America and Brazil.
In fact, we just recently announced a partnership with Telebras, a Brazilian telecommunications company, to provide ground connectivity for their new satellite. We see here yet another opportunity to reach many of the unconnected residents of that country with Viasat Community Wi-Fi. In just a few years, we’ll begin launching our global constellation of ViaSat-3 satellites, with many more chances to serve internet to the millions of people around the world that traditional internet service providers have left behind.
It’s an exciting time, and a great effort to be part of. Stay tuned for more developments and take a look at the video below to meet some of the people we helped get online in Mexico.