Viasat starts ViaSat-4 development, mulls hybrid GEO-LEO-terrestrial connections

Space

WASHINGTON — Fleet operator Viasat, already in the middle of building a trio of high-capacity broadband satellites, has started work on a next-generation constellation, CEO Mark Dankberg said Aug. 8. 

A ViaSat-4 series is in early development, extensively leveraging research and development on the 1-terabit-per-second or more ViaSat-3 satellites, Dankberg said during an earnings call. 

Viasat plans to launch its first ViaSat-3 satellite over the Americas in early 2021, Dankberg said, with the second launching about six months later to cover Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The third should launch over the Asia-Pacific before the end of 2022, he said. 

ViaSat-3 is the highest capacity geostationary satellite system under development in the world, followed by Hughes Network Systems’ Jupiter-3 and Eutelsat Communications Konnect VHTS, both of which are expected to carry 500 gigabits per second of capacity when they launch in 2021. 

Dankberg, whose long standing conviction is that consumers want large quantities of cheap bandwidth, said to expect even more capacity from ViaSat-4. 

“What we’re aiming for and what we expect is to have another pretty significant improvement relative to the ViaSat-3 series,” he said. “We call it ViaSat-4 because it’s really an embellishment of ViaSat-3.”

Dankberg declined to give specifics about ViaSat-4, such as number of spacecraft and when they would be in orbit. The company is gauging trade-offs on schedule, performance and cost, he said, with the expectation of releasing those details later this year, he said. 

GEO is best, but LEO can help

Dankberg said Viasat has closely examined low-Earth-orbit broadband constellation regulatory filings, and is impressed by the payload architectures of some proposed systems. Nonetheless, Viasat views the geosynchronous orbit as the best place to deliver satellite internet. 

“We really like our approach because it allows us to deliver, we think, the most bandwidth per dollar invested into the places that have the most demand, and then we can reinforce those,” he said. “That’s really difficult to do with the low-Earth-orbit satellites.”

A difference with LEO constellations is that they require many more satellites — dozens, hundreds, or even thousands depending on altitude — to provide global coverage. Increasing the capacity of a LEO system means adding batches of new satellites, whereas in GEO a single satellite can provide a significant boost. 

But LEO satellites have much lower signal lag because of their proximity to the Earth, potentially making them more suitable for services like voice calls and online gaming. 

Dankberg said Viasat is evaluating “combining our geosynchronous satellites with either lower latency terrestrial infrastructure, and in some cases lower latency LEO satellites if they’re available, to deliver a hybrid GEO-LEO experience.”

Dankberg did not mention a medium-Earth-orbit constellation idea for which Viasat requested U.S. regulators grant spectrum almost three years ago. Viasat is working with some LEO constellation ventures, he said, but described that effort as a “very technically complex space.”

On the terrestrial side, Dankberg said Viasat is working on a hybrid router that could combine low-latency but data-constrained terrestrial networks with high-throughput, but comparatively high-latency satellite capacity. Viasat is in early alpha testing of that technology, he said. 

Paying for ViaSat-4

Dankberg said research and development for ViaSat-4 should hover around 5% of company revenues. 

Viasat reported $537 million in revenue for the months of April, May and June, constituting a 22% increase in quarterly revenue.

The addition of customers on ViaSat-2, which launched in summer 2017, is fueling much of that growth, particularly in residential broadband and in-flight Wi-Fi, Viasat Chief Financial Officer Shawn Duffy said. 

Viasat currently operates three satellites — Wildblue-1, ViaSat-1 and ViaSat-2 — and has a prepaid lifetime lease for Ka-band capacity on Telesat’s Anik F2 satellite. The company is also adding subscribers in Brazil after a court there approved its use of capacity on Telebras’ SGDC-1 satellite. 

Duffy said Viasat is connecting thousands of locations with the SGDC-1 satellite, and should reach 15,000 sites by year’s end. 

Viasat reported a net loss of $11.5 million, an amount the company stemmed by 66% from the prior quarter. 

Not counting defense-sector Indefinite Delivery, Indefinite Quantity agreements and optional contract extensions, Viasat tallied $1.84 billion in backlogged business. Duffy said the company has more than $1 billion in such agreements and options not counted in backlog, but that are still anticipated to boost revenue should government customers make use of them.

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