OneWeb's constellation of 700-plus satellites in low Earth orbit at 1,200 kilometers in altitude has the undeniable advantage of serving the entire planet and offering much lower latency -- the time it takes for a signal to travel between the customer and the satellite -- than any geostationary-orbit system. Operators of geostationary-orbit satellites retort that penguins and fish don't pay for broadband, and that low-orbit systems spend too much time flying over penguin-and-fish territory. ViaSat Inc. makes the same point, but the company has asked U.S. regulators to approva a 24-satellite constellation in medium-Earth orbit, at 8,200 kilometers. Credit: OneWeb OneWeb’s constellation of 700-plus satellites in low Earth orbit at 1,200 kilometers in altitude has the undeniable advantage of serving the entire planet and offering much lower latency — the time it takes for a signal to travel between the customer and the satellite — than any geostationary-orbit system. Operators of geostationary-orbit satellites retort that penguins and fish don’t pay for broadband, and that low-orbit systems spend too much time flying over penguin-and-fish territory. ViaSat Inc. makes the same point, but the company has asked U.S. regulators to approva a 24-satellite constellation in medium-Earth orbit, at 8,200 kilometers. Credit: OneWeb

 

PARIS — ViaSat Chief Executive Mark D. Dankberg on Feb. 9 laid out the case for geostationary-orbit broadband satellites against low-orbiting systems without addressing the business case behind ViaSat’s own proposed non-geostationary constellation.

As he has in the past, Dankberg said low-Earth-orbit [LEO] satellite constellations’ advantage in offering low-latency communications is of little or no use to the vast majority of broadband customers.

“Our own experience in selling consumer broadband is that latency is not even one of the top two performance attributes for consumers,” Dankberg said in a conference call with investors. “The top two are clearly speed and volume of bandwidth, and it’s really driven by video.”

ViaSat’s FCC proposal is 24 satellites in medium-Earth orbit

ViaSat has nonetheless pitched its own non-geostationary-orbit system to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as a system that offers what geostationary-orbit satellites cannot: low latency and fully global coverage.

ViaSat’s proposal is one of 11 non-geostationary systems submitted to the FCC in November. He said the FCC has given preliminary feedback to the company signaling that, whatever else might be said about it, it was seriously prepared, unlike some of the other filings.

“There was a range of completeness and thoughtfulness in the filings and ours was probably at the higher end of that,” Dankberg said, adding that the change in presidential administrations in the United States had slowed the FCC’s processing of the different proposals.

ViaSat’s envisions 24 satellites, in three orbital planes, operating at 8,200 kilometers in altitude inclined 87 degrees relative to the equator.

Ubiquitous coverage from the near-polar orbit, as well as the lower latency afforded satellites at 8,200 kilometers compared to geostationary-orbit satellites at 36,000 kilometers, are the two main selling points.

MEO to GEO handoffs for data backhaul

ViaSat said its medium-Earth-orbit system could relay data to the ViaSat-3 constellation of high-throughput satellites, much as cell towers in remote regions use satellites for backhaul to the telecommunications grid.

For the Feb. 9 call, the topic was LEO versus GEO. Dankberg used OneWeb, which he said appeared to be the LEO broadband constellation furthest along the development path, as his point of reference.

“In 2020, we’re looking at probably well over a 1,000 terabits per second of access bandwidth demand globally,” Dankberg said. “We and OneWeb would have single-digit amounts of terabit, so I don’t think it’s a fight to the death between us. The thing that we’ve been very focused on is driving down the cost of bandwidth so that we can offer high speeds and, especially, essentially uncapped plans. That’s a big factor in customer satisfaction.

“But the other really big differentiator between what we’re doing [and LEO] systems is the geographic distribution of bandwidth. [W]ith a low-orbit system, your satellites are distributed uniformly in orbit space…. They have lots of bandwidth at the poles but as you get closer to the equator, the bandwidth available in any geographic market becomes closer to the fraction of the [Earth’s surface] that that market represents.

OneWeb to corner the Montana market

“The U.S. is about 1% of the surface of the Earth. So depending on the details of how they measure capacity in the service that they deliver, it’s on the order of 1% to 2% of the spacecraft in a lower-orbit constellation that can serve the U.S. — the same for Western Europe or other high-demand markets.

“That really informs the type of businesses that you can go after. Not only is that true for the initial deployment of a constellation, it’s true for all of the expansions as well.

“So it’s a little bit like if Verizon or AT&T said, hey, I’ve got this really interesting breakthrough in cellular technology; the only requirement is that I have to distribute my cell towers uniformly, geographically across the U.S. So for every one I put in New York City, I’ve got to put a corresponding number in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and all those other places as well.

“That’s really what happens with these lower-orbit systems. What we’ve seen is that geographic demand for bandwidth is very localized. Something like 95% of all the people in the world live on 5% of the surface of the earth.

“So we’re able to go after markets where there is high demand and then reinforce those markets very cost effectively with additional spacecraft. That’s a lot harder to do with LEO. It doesn’t mean that you can’t be successful, it just means that you get a very different go-to-market strategy. It’s not that they can’t co-exist but we certainly like ours better.”

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Peter B. de Selding
Peter B. de Selding
Peter de Selding is a Co-Founder and editor for SpaceIntelReport.com. He started SpaceIntelReport in 2017 after 26 years as the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews where he covered the commercial satellite, launch and the international space businesses. He is widely considered the preeminent reporter in the space industry and is a must read for space executives. Follow Peter @pbdes