When Kevin Cohen talks about Viasat’s work in Mexican communities, the words come fast, enthusiasm accelerating the pace of his speech.
As the general manager of the Community Wi-Fi service in North and South America, Cohen has overseen installations in more than 1,000 Mexican communities. With the expanded geographic coverage of ViaSat-2, this number is expected to grow rapidly in 2018 and beyond.
“I like talking about what we do because it’s exciting,” said Cohen, who’s traveled to more than 20 of the small towns Viasat serves. “The stories we get about how this is changing lives are so fulfilling.
“I think it should make everyone in our company really proud. Not only is this a financial success for Viasat, it’s a good deed for the world.”
As the company expands globally, Viasat plans to replicate the current Community Wi-Fi model around the world. And Cohen plans to go with it.
“This could be the one business we do everywhere,” he said. “There are over a billion people today who aren’t connected to cellular networks. So in six or seven years, our Community Wi-Fi solution could help to bridge this connectivity divide and be one of our biggest businesses.”
A simple but unique solution
For a service with such a potentially profound impact, a Community Wi-Fi installation is relatively simple.
A terminal and Wi-Fi access point is installed at a centrally located store, business or residence. The owner of that location is turned into a Wi-Fi retailer, offering a service people are lining up for.
The low-income, often isolated communities Viasat targets have poor quality internet service — or none at all. Customers typically pay cash to the business or store retailer owner in exchange for an online access code. The cost increases with the amount of internet time or data a user selects and is priced to be affordable for people living in underdeveloped communities.
Supporting a product with international potential is a perfect career match for Cohen, whose intrigue with other cultures started with high school Spanish. When he graduated from the University of Michigan with an engineering degree, he’d added five more languages. Each one he added further fueled his desire to see the world.
Cohen set his sights on a job with the potential for international work and a southern California location. Having spent the first decade of his life in San Diego, he’d never forgotten its sunny climate and relaxed culture — or lost the sense that it was home.
Those things were top of mind when he attended a 2008 college career fair and saw the Viasat booth. The name was unfamiliar.
“But I really liked the growth story, and that it was a public company,” he said. “I did not see what was actually going to happen. Then we were a domestic ISP. Since then, we’ve expanded internationally and are working toward becoming the first global ISP. So my goal of working abroad, speaking different languages actually materialized. The company grew into what I had wanted all along.”
“Even better,” he said, “I felt like I was adding value.”
Cohen’s first manager at Viasat said he seeks passion in potential employees, and Cohen had that in spades.
“He was so full of energy, I figured good stuff would come from hiring him,” said Greg Girkins. “It always stood out to me how many simultaneous projects he had his fingers in as a new product introduction engineer, and all of his colleagues had high remarks about his efforts.”
Cohen quickly worked his way up in the company. He managed programs on the government side, serving on a team that developed the modems now operating on U.S. government senior leader aircraft.
Birth of an idea
Even as his career advanced, Cohen simultaneously pursued a master’s in business administration at San Diego State. As his final project, he proposed a market study for satellite broadband in Mexico and Brazil. His inspiration came in large part from seeing how ViaSat-2 would cover Mexico and how ViaSat-3 would later cover Brazil.
When Viasat executives heard about the idea, they tasked Cohen with running Community Wi-Fi pilot projects.
“I was at the first-ever site visits we did, and I was there in April 2016 when we turned on both of the first two installations,” he said. “It was freaking awesome. The service was fast. All the townspeople were super excited about it. They had nothing before. Now they had good internet, and it was affordable.”
The service has been modified many times since then, changing significantly when Viasat partnered on installations with a Mexican telecommunications company based in Tijuana.
“I met that partner taking a shot of tequila at a bar in Washington D.C.,” Cohen said. “We had the technology, capacity and knowledge from our trials. They had the local knowledge and experience.”
Viasat will seek and train local partners in each country it enters — a process that needs to be fast and seamless.
“We want to take this into other countries under the ViaSat-3 footprint and basically make country entry a core competency of Viasat,” Cohen said. “You need to have a robust partnering strategy and a way to enter 50 countries all at once.”
The work doesn’t stop there. In fact, internet service may be just the beginning of Viasat’s impact on underserved global communities.
“We’re trying to bring in different programs – micro loans, education services – so we could potentially give someone an education for a free or a low price. If we could put the service on solar so it never goes down, we’d increase our revenues and provide more value to the community. Or in places where there is more money, we could sell both power and internet at the same time. Through third-party partners, we’re going to have a whole ecosystem of value-added services.”
Viasat employees in Carlsbad, Denver, College Station, TX, San Jose, CA, Chennai, India, Dublin and Boston are all working on aspects of these ideas.
Cisco Ortega, who works with Cohen as Viasat’s Wi-Fi Operations Manager for Mexico, said Cohen’s enthusiasm for the program flows through the team.
“He’s absolutely passionate and we all kind of feed off that,” Ortega said. “He has a vision of how he wants to develop the program. He sets the pace, and we try to keep up with him.”
As much as he loves his work, Cohen has a life outside the office. He and his wife, Bree, were married in Ensenada, Mexico in September 2017, and though Cohen travels nearly non-stop for work, seeing the world is among their favorite pastimes. He spins, hikes, lifts weights and runs – usually with the same intensity he brings to his work – and occasionally sits quietly by the ocean.
But Viasat is never completely out of his mind.
“I’m always thinking about work, and these other values we can provide,” he said. “Ten years ago, I just wanted to be doing something internationally where I could be helping a company grow and make a difference in the world. I think we’re there.”