Last year, Viasat kicked off a new kind of internet service called Community Wi-Fi (“CWF”). Using a central hotspot connected via satellite, CWF has made it possible to offer internet service to many remote communities that previously had little or no service. Inside Viasat caught up with Kevin Cohen, Viasat’s GM of Community Wi-Fi in North and South America, to hear how things are going today.
Overall, how is the Community Wi-Fi program going in Mexico?
The service has been very successful at connecting the unconnected and bridging the digital divide. We started scaling the business with the launch of the service on the ViaSat-2 satellite in late May, and we’ve learned a lot along the way. As always with a new business/start-up — especially in a new country in remote, hard-to-reach areas — there are many unforeseen challenges and hurdles that we have had to overcome. We believe the learnings to date provide us a solid foundation to bring this service to new countries under the ViaSat-2 geography — and then globally with our ViaSat-3 constellation.
How many people are currently being connected via CWF?
Almost 100,000 people per month are accessing our service via CWF in Mexico. We anticipate being able to connect millions of Mexicans monthly as we scale the business — and potentially hundreds of millions of people as we take the business global. Currently, there are over a billion people out-of-reach of cellular service. By the end of 2018, we expect to be operating and providing service in every state in Mexico.
CWF relies on local retailers selling the service. What kind of response do we hear from them?
Retailers selling our service are extremely excited to be able to provide such an important public good to the people of their community. The amount of joy you see on their faces when they talk about what it is like to have the community finally connected is really priceless. They act as the ambassadors to help connect people to the internet, sometimes for the first time!
What are the plans to expand CWF in other countries?
Due to the success of this service, we are already talking to other partners about bringing this service to new countries under the footprint of the ViaSat-2 satellite, and we are preparing for countries under the first ViaSat-3 satellite in the Americas (scheduled for late 2020). We expect to launch in multiple new countries over the next 12 months. We also are working to launch this service in Brazil with our partner, Telebras, on their SGDC-1 satellite.
What are Viasat’s goals as we prepare to launch the ViaSat-3 satellite constellation for global coverage?
The goal is to connect the unconnected — which means bringing connectivity to people in the hardest-to-reach places with a reliable, affordable high-speed internet connection. There are hundreds of millions of people we can connect throughout the world, and Mexico is just the beginning of this effort.
How are people using the service?
One of the main uses of our service is for homework for the kids on a high-speed connection, which has improved their opportunity for higher education. Without a high-speed connection, they can’t do their homework, use the internet to search for information or connect with others to solve problems.
People also use the service to learn where to sell their crops or when to hold onto them, where to acquire livestock and when to sell — and even to study how to fight crop disease.
Many people use the service to video-chat with their family and friends living in larger cities or in the United States. It’s been especially striking to see how people talked about being able to show off their kids “in the flesh” for the first time and how much of a life changer it has been to be able to communicate through video.
YouTube is one of the most popular uses of our service. People enjoy having a full internet experience where they can watch videos that they could never watch on a mobile or slow DSL connection.
What are some of the other services people are able to access using CWF?
With our CWF service in Mexico, we provide a pay-by-the-minute VoIP phone service as well as bill payment. We are developing strategic partnerships to provide other value-added services such as microfinance, mobile banking, education, and telemedicine — which will improve the lives of the people we connect while improving the value of our service to them.
Why is Community Wi-Fi so important?
There are hundreds of millions of people who will never be connected to traditional terrestrial or mobile networks due to geographic dispersion, population density and affordability. Without low-cost infrastructure investments and innovative business models like Viasat’s, they will remain left behind in the digital world.