Viasat deploys free public Wi-Fi service in small, underserved Arizona town

Families who lack internet at home are using the service to keep up with school and work


In the late 1800s, the small southern Arizona town of Mammoth teemed with rowdy life. Miners flocked to the picturesque setting at the base of the Galiuro Mountains for the chance to grow rich at the famous Mammoth Copper Mine. And the mining camp that formed – complete with hotel, a hospital and a hog ranch to keep the miners fed – eventually became the town of Mammoth.

The mine closed in 2003, but the community that grew up around it remains.

“It’s a neat little town,” said Mammoth Town Manager Don Jones. “But we’re scratching to survive. And we’re all burrowed in because of the pandemic.”

Since the state closed all schools in mid-March, students have been expected to work from home. And that’s been tough for the 147 students at Mammoth Elementary School.

Terrestrial Internet options in Mammoth are limited and the cost of those services is out of reach for many residents. Eighty percent of the students are on the free or reduced cost lunch program, so most parents have little to spare for internet.

“Expecting students and teachers to take on this role of studying and teaching from home immediately without much guidance and instruction has been very difficult,” said Julie Dale-Scott, superintendent of the Mammoth-San Manuel Unified School District. “Many of our students not only don’t have internet, they don’t have devices. Or they may have one computer and several kids who need to use it. If they do have a device, there often isn’t a quiet space at home to work.”

Because of the widespread lack of access, teachers have sent some homework in paper packets, a method Dale-Scott said solves one problem, but gives rise to another: The potential spread of the coronavirus.

“It’s been a challenge, an absolute challenge,” she said.

Help from Viasat

Viasat’s Global Business Solutions team, working with two statewide groups, helped ease some of that stress in late April when it installed a high-speed satellite-based internet hotspot on the Mammoth Community Center. Now, students can drive, walk or bike to the center, connect to the internet and do homework – at no cost. And their parents, siblings or other relatives who need the internet to support work-at-home needs from their employers can freely use the service as well.

Other internet service providers have jumped in to help schools in larger communities where they have infrastructure. But Viasat’s Cody Catalena said Mammoth was a school ideally suited to satellite.

“Some of these schools will likely never be candidates for fiber,” said Catalena, vice president of Viasat’s Global Business Solutions. “In some respects, we’re the only game in town for either a near- or long-term solution because we can do this quickly and without the right-of-way requirements, permits and other things a traditional terrestrial carrier would require. It’s just one example of a rural school we could help, and there are many more we could do this for.”

Similar scenes are playing out across the United States, according to a May 5 NBC News story. Americans are tapping into Wi-Fi hotspots from parking lots and streets outside schools, libraries and other public buildings across the country. Especially in rural and poor areas, the connections are serving as a life line during the pandemic, with people seeking school, work, healthcare and social connections they can no longer access in person.

“COVID-19 has created a lot of stressors for people; Viasat has definitely helped in that we can at least offer them a means of doing things online,” Dale-Scott said. “We’re trying to keep everybody safe, and we want to get our students, staff and parents used to the online learning so we can work more effectively now and as this continues.”

Team effort

The Arizona Commerce Authority and Local First Arizona teamed up with Viasat to make the connection happen. The Authority aims to expand broadband throughout rural Arizona and had already been in discussions with Viasat to help address that issue in underserved areas where terrestrial providers don’t have infrastructure.

Local First Arizona works on a variety of initiatives – job development, small business support, tourism and others – in Arizona’s smallest communities. Former mining towns within the state’s Copper Corridor – including Mammoth – have long been part of their focus.

“When this whole thing happened, we realized kids in these communities didn’t have access,” said Liza Noland, director of rural programs for Local First Arizona. “We reached out to the broadband team at the Arizona Commerce Authority; they had a connection to Viasat.

“We also reached out to quite a few other companies to see if they would help. Those larger providers had no interest. So to see a company like Viasat go through the effort of looking at the plans for this building, determining an access point and getting it done in only a few days was really appreciated.”

Noland said the larger problem still exists.

“If you look at a map of Wi-Fi service in the state of Arizona, you’ll see two core areas where there’s plenty of access and this massive space with zero,” she said. “Broadband access in our rural communities is a systemic issue.

“Yet somebody was willing to step up for this one community. It was nice to see somebody care.”

Dale-Scott says the hotspot will be well-used in the days to come.

“We’re doing summer school online, so we hope to utilize it even more during the summer,” she said.