ViaSat's Dankberg on satellites' 'soft failure mode' and Europe's invitation

January 10, 2017

ViaSat CEO Mark D. Dankberg says the problem with a low-orbiting satellite-Internet constellation is that it's like a cellular network operator uniformly spacing its cell towers around the United States rather than focusing coverage on high-demand areas. "That would be a big disadvantage." Credit: ViaSat

ViaSat CEO Mark D. Dankberg says the problem with a low-orbiting satellite-Internet constellation is that it's like a cellular network operator uniformly spacing its cell towers around the United States rather than focusing coverage on high-demand areas. "That would be a big disadvantage." Credit: ViaSat

PARIS — Satellite broadband hardware and services provider ViaSat Inc., which for the first time is designing and building the full electronics payload for its future satellites, said it has built in a “soft failure mode” that preserves the satellite’s advantages even if performance is far less than expected.

ViaSat Chief Executive Mark D. Dankberg said the company did the same thing for its Ka-band ViaSat-1 satellite, in operation since 2012; and for the ViaSat-2 satellite scheduled for launch in March or April aboard a European Ariane 5 rocket.

ViaSat-1 has a throughput of about 140 gigabits per second. ViaSat-2, built by Boeing, is designed to generate 250-300 gigabits per second of throughput. ViaSat-3, using a Boeing platform and a ViaSat-built payload, is billed as a terabit-per-second satellite.

“We’re well over a year into the program and every risk has worked out as we intended,” Dankberg said Jan. 5 at an investor conference organized by Citi. “But even if risks don’t go our way, the failure mode will still result in capacity that is markedly better than the ViaSat-2 and a coverage that’s markedly better.”

The trick to generating more capacity per satellite is providing vastly more beams and slightly more spectrum per beam, Dankberg said. Squeezing more beams from the satellite was not something available on the market, which was why ViaSat decided to do the payload work itself.

ViaSat also has a painful history with satellite builder Space Systems Loral, ViaSat-1’s builder, whom ViaSat accused of stealing ViaSat technology to provide a ViaSat-1 twin to ViaSat’s competitor, Hughes Network Systems, a unit of EchoStar Corp.

The “feed cluster” at the base of the satellite’s antenna sends energy to the antenna, which is shaped in such a way as to beam the power to a given geographic region.

“What we came up with is a way to make way more beams out of a comparable number of physical elements on the spacecraft,” Dankberg said. “That’s really a big part of it.”

Still waiting for a final joint-venture agreement with Eutelsat

ViaSat has two ViaSat-3 satellite platforms under contract with Boeing. The first will bolster the company’s North American Exede broadband service, including aeronautical and maritime routes in the Caribbean and the North Atlantic, with coverage extending eastward to Britain.

ViaSat and Paris-based satellite fleet operator Eutelsat have said they would form a joint venture that would provide seamless mobility coverage between North America and Europe using ViaSat-2 and Eutelsat’s Ka-Sat, which is already in service.

ViaSat’s clear intention is to use this joint venture to provide a readymade market for ViaSat-3 as well, although the agreement has not yet been signed.

Eutelsat Chief Executive Rodolphe Belmer has told his company’s investors that the deal was progressing but needed more time to finalize.

Does French government want a Eutelsat-ViaSat linkup?

In December, former French Research Minister Genevieve Fioraso told the French parliament that Eutelsat needed to be helped in its consumer broadband business to avoid Eutelsat’s being a junior partner to a European satellite broadband program managed by “the Americans,” presumably meaning ViaSat.

Fioraso may have been reflecting the concerns of French satellite builders, Thales Alenia Space and Airbus Defence and Space, that a Boeing- and ViaSat-built ViaSat 3 over Europe would lock European industry out of what for now looks to be the most extensive satellite consumer broadband initiative in Europe. She said 1,000 jobs could be lost if Eutelsat signed on with a U.S. company.

Dankberg said Eutelsat, as an established provider of wholesale fixed satellite services, has struggled with the retail business model of Ka-Sat. On the strength of its experience with ViaSat-2 and soon ViaSat-2, ViaSat can improve on Eutelsat’s retail performance, he said.

Two join ventures are planned. Eutelsat will own 51 percent of the wholesale business, which will shield its investors from the shocks associated with a retail subscription operation. ViaSat will have 51 percent of the retail business, with an eye toward the second ViaSat-3 satellite, to be operated over Europe.

“The big payoff for us is that we’re going to have ViaSat-3 in Europe and we want to have a robust consumer business there as well,” Dankberg said. “Our main objective is not to invade new territory, but to be invited in. With Eutelsat, a big, well-established European company — being invited in with them would be good for us once we’ve come to an agreement on all the terms.”

ViaSat puzzled by OneWeb, SpaceX LEO constellation business models 

Ultimately ViaSat plans a third ViaSat-3 satellite over Asia, although a partner invitation has yet to surface. The third satellite would give the ViaSat-3 system global coverage except for the poles and a few areas of low population.

Several companies, including SpaceX and OneWeb, are proposing to launch hundreds of satellites in low Earth orbit for global Internet delivery. The advantage of these systems over ViaSat’s three satellites in geostationary orbit is that they offer fully global coverage.

As do all geostationary-satellite operators, ViaSat says he cannot understand the economics of a low-orbiting system of hundreds of satellites that spend most their orbit over areas of little business interest. ViaSat-3 will train power in the most profitable regions at the most demand-intense times of the day.

Imagine if Verizon “used 5G only if the cell towers are uniformly distributed around the United States,” Dankberg said in reference to the LEO constellations. “That would be a big disadvantage.”


Peter B. de Selding