For at least five years, the residents of Arroyo Prieto, a town deep in the mountain region of Guerrero, Mexico, have looked to the sky to get a sense of whether their internet connection will be good that day. This community of less than a thousand people, located in the south of the country, is surrounded by a wilderness of rolling hills, dirt roads, and cliffs. The town relies on a satellite service for internet access, which means that clouds and rain showers often translate to slow or broken connections.
Even during clear skies, access to the services of companies like StarGo, one of the Mexican satellite internet providers that service Arroyo Prieto, can be expensive, starting at about 1,000 pesos ($48). That’s where internet dealers like Quirino de la Cruz Nicolás come in. In 2017, de la Cruz, who subscribes to StarGo, paid a technician to install a coverage-boosting router next to his house and to set up the software to generate internet tokens. He went from internet user to internet dealer, selling Wi-Fi to his community by the hour, starting at 10 pesos (48 cents) an hour. Currently, de la Cruz is one of five internet dealers in his town who can afford an internet connection.
Business for internet dealers like de la Cruz is tough: there’s competition from copycat neighbors who have taken to selling their own, often better quality, internet. Then there’s the Mexican government, which has promised to provide universal internet coverage, and telecoms companies, which increasingly are finally starting to reach small rural communities like Arroyo Prieto.
Without internet dealers like de la Cruz, internet access for the Na Savi, as the people of Arroyo Prieto call themselves, would be extremely limited. Arroyo Prieto still lacks cell towers, and its rugged terrain cuts off the signal from those nearby. Residents relied on satellite dishes set up by the government at the police station and two local schools where, for years, a limited number of people could surf the web. “You had to wait up to half an hour in line for people to get off the phone with a relative,” recalled de la Cruz.
Although President Andrés Manuel López Obrador previously promised to provide universal internet access to Mexicans by 2021, more than 35 million people in the country still lacked a connection. The digital divide has narrowed in recent years, but sharp inequalities persist: about 50% of the population in remote, rural communities don’t have internet access compared to just 23% in urban areas. More recently, López Obrador pushed back the connectivity deadline to 2023.
Rural populations meanwhile have come to rely on private satellite internet. That comes at a cost: the citizens of Arroyo Prieto pay 274% more for a residential satellite package compared to their compatriots plugged into fiber optic internet in urban areas. And the access they get for that price is much slower, since the connection is capped at 35GB — a single download of an HD movie alone uses up about 3GB or 4GB.
Meanwhile, internet dealers in Arroyo Prieto sell internet packages from 30 pesos ($1.48) a day. It’s a steep price in Guerrero, where the daily minimum wage is 50 pesos ($2.50). Yet people are still willing to pay for it, particularly now that some students are still required to take classes online, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
De la Cruz competes with the four other internet dealers in his town for customers. They have, he acknowledges, better coverage than he can offer. He now sells his connection for just 5 pesos (24 cents) per hour, but, even so, his business has slowed to a trickle. He’ll now sometimes make a profit of about 500 to 1,000 pesos ($24–$48) per month; other times, he makes just enough to pay his internet fee. A big canvas sign still hangs from his modest wooden home advertising internet tokens.
In the last decade or so, telecomms companies have begun connecting the last untapped internet frontiers. Recently, Mexican value-added resellers, or VARs, companies that resell satellite internet company data to remote towns, have become popular in rural Mexico: companies like Prosperist Group, StarGo, Telmex, and Dish. There’s a lot of money to be made in the repackaging of internet access to rural communities, says Carlos Mireles, the network engineer who installed de la Cruz’s router. But “the owners of the metals [satellites] are the ones making the most money,” he told Rest of World.
Mireles has been in the telecomms industry for 15 years, first installing rural telephones lines and eventually selling satellite internet access to those same communities. While working with StarGo, he launched his own side hustle as an expert, providing hardware, software, and tech support for people who wanted to resell their satellite internet service like de la Cruz. But he has found that his trade is no longer financially feasible, as bigger, more established companies come in to take his place.
Iván Ordáz, co-founder of Connecting Company, also known as Co-co, a VAR based in the northern city of Monterrey, is one of them. He saw how the pandemic exacerbated the need for the internet. When he set up a network, he says, it sold like “hotcakes.” Just one year old, Co-co is now in 36 rural towns. Co-co promises higher quality internet than informal dealers can provide. That is because “VARs can buy data at a better deal from [satellite] internet providers and then build a model of community management,” explained Ordáz.
Then, there’s the government’s universal internet plan. As part of its mission to meet its “Internet for All” initiative, the Mexican government is looking to increase connectivity by eventually replacing satellite technology in remote communities altogether.
For now, de la Cruz’s primary competition is still from his neighbors. In the last few years, he has had to lower his prices; it’s been a long time since he last saw the kinds of profits he saw in 2017.
Still, de la Cruz says increased connectivity, options, and better broadband for his region would be a net positive for his community. His dream is to open up a cyber café in Arroyo Prieto. “I want to buy 10 to 20 computers, when I have the money; right now, I don’t have any savings,” he said.