Visit Santiago or Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires or Bogotá, and you’d think that everyone in Latin America had access to fast internet, everywhere. Mexico City provides free Wi-Fi on much of its vast subway system and aims to cover every line by 2019. And there’s a solid signal through the 100-year-old walls of the Copacabana Hotel in Rio de Janeiro. But venture out into the Latin American countryside, and the internet often vanishes. Take the example of La Ciénega de González, a charming community in the state of Nuevo León, in northeastern Mexico. In Monterrey, the state’s capital, almost everyone has access to the internet, like in most Mexican cities. But in La Ciénega de Gonzalez, none of the 300 residents had a connection to the web or cellular service. The town sits in a remote valley in the Sierra Madre mountains, which rise and fall between there and Monterrey.
Nuevo Leon is home to many small towns like La Ciénega de González, where telecom and wireless giants found it simply didn’t pay to run fiber or build a cellular tower to serve so few customers at such a low average revenue per user combined with the low population density—a key metric that drives telecom/wireless decision making. One third of people living in the state have no internet. Statistics get worse as one travels south in Mexico. In Chiapas, on the Guatemalan border, the internet reaches just 17 percent of the population. There are many places like La Ciénega de González across Latin America: towns tucked into Andean valleys or spread on Patagonian plains. These are the places that are on the wrong side of the digital divide, disadvantaged by difficult geography, low population density and low purchasing power. But there is a solution: Community Wi-Fi powered by satellite broadband internet. In La Ciénega de González, Viasat installed a satellite antenna and an access point in the middle of town. Technicians flipped the switch, and fast, affordable Wi-Fi became available to all 300 residents within 500 meters of the new equipment. With speeds around 25 megabits per second (Mbps), the service is fast enough for users to download videos, for families miles apart to video-chat and for school kids to research class projects. For the same price as a bag of chips or a can of soda, people can surf the internet without restrictions. Viasat is serving up Community Wi-Fi hotspots to remote towns across Latin America, fulfilling a plan that began in 2014, when Viasat acquired NetNearU, a leader in remote Wi-Fi systems. Using NetNearU technology, Viasat has set up over 1,000 Community Wi-Fi hotspot sites throughout Mexico, bringing the internet within walking distance of more than 500,000 people in out-of-the way places like La Ciénega de González.
Closing the digital divide
Most Latin American governments are eager to get their citizens online. Brazil, for one, has its Programa Nacional de Banda Larga, or National Broadband Program, launched in 2010 to install internet infrastructure and reduce the price of service nationwide. Analysts credit the program with boosting the number of household internet subscriptions in Brazil to 39 million in 2017 from just 14 million in 2011, according to Brazil’s state-run Institute of Applied Economic Research (IPEA). Brazil sees connectivity as a good investment. A study by the IPEA showed that increasing internet access by 1 percent drives the gross domestic product (GDP) up by 0.19 percent. Yet, Brazil has more to do. Anatel, Brazil’s national telecommunications agency, says that as of last year, there were 11.6 million households without internet because of lack of service or prohibitively high prices. Many of them live far beyond the reach of fiber-optic cable. To serve them, the Brazilian government is counting on a satellite that Telebras, the state-owned telecommunications company, launched in May 2017. The Telebras satellite, SGDC-1, covers all of Brazil, but it needs ground-based infrastructure help to reach all Brazilians. In fact, Telebras teamed-up with Viasat to help connect the unconnected in the country by using the same proven Community Wi-Fi service Viasat offers in Mexico. The Brazilian government is continuing to vet the agreement, and some legal hurdles remain, but Telebras and Viasat expect soon to be setting up Community Wi-Fi hotspots in small remote towns across Brazil, including in the Amazon jungle. Once set up, town residents will be able to buy plans and get online for less than a dollar. The advantage to satellite is that it doesn’t discriminate when it comes to rural land. The signal is unconstrained by terrain and distance — factors that bedevil fiber and terrestrial wireless. Viasat is focused on bridging the digital divide, to ensure communities and their constituents are part of the digital inclusion movement. Just ask the grade schoolers in Nuevo León who’ve seen both sides of the digital divide. Before satellite, they struggled to do homework assigned by teachers in the larger towns where they are bused for school. Now, they can do research at home, complete assignments in a timely manner and become part of the digital community. Or ask the pharmacist, who now can look up doses of medications made for adults during emergencies. Or ask the football fans streaming the game and rooting for their favorite team. The digital divide can be eradicated through the power of high-capacity satellites coupled with proven Community Wi-Fi technologies. Viasat is doing it today — one community at a time in Latin America — and has global aspirations to bring its technologies to areas where telecom/wireless companies can’t, or won’t think to go.
Nichole Rostad is a Colorado native with a strong passion for Spanish literature, language and culture. She’s excited to be part of the Latin America Community Wi-Fi team at Viasat. In her free time, Nichole enjoys traveling, spending time with her dog, family and curling.