ViaSat and O3b, now distant neighbors, eye confrontation in medium-Earth orbit

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PARIS — ViaSat Inc and SES-owned O3b Ltd., two satellite fleet operators providing commercial Ka-band broadband from different orbital vantage points, look to become direct competitors based on new satellite constellations both are proposing to U.S. regulators.

ViaSat wants augment its planned global network of three ViaSat-3 satellites in geostationary orbit, each with an advertised 1 terabit per second of throughput, with a constellation of 24 medium-Earth-orbit satellites operating in three orbital planes inclined at 87 degrees relative to the equator.

According to Carlsbad, California-based ViaSat’s Nov. 15 proposal to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the ViaSat constellation would be placed in circular orbit at 8,200 kilometers in altitude.

The system, which is registered in The Netherlands, would use both Ka- and the higher V-band frequency. ViaSat said it would seek a waiver of current FCC restrictions on the use of V-band spectrum by guaranteeing that it would not interfere with terrestrial wireless operators in the same frequency.

ViaSat also said it will not interfere with O3b’s network of medium-Earth-orbit satellites, operating in an unusual equatorial orbit but at the same 8,200-kilometer altitude as the ViaSat system.

ViaSat did not provide a cost estimate in its proposal but the FCC has said any system would need to be in service within six years of receipt of its U.S. license.

ViaSat is already building two of the planned three ViaSat-3 satellites, with launches planned for the end of this decade. Whether the company’s shareholders will accept the large investment in a constellation at the same time is unclear. ViaSat said that, once in orbit, its satellites would operate for 20 years.

The same day that ViaSat submitted its proposal, O3b asked the U.S. regulatory for a license to operate a network that adds new frequencies and a new orbit to the existing 12-satellite O3b network.

O3b wants three separate constellations

O3b, owned by Luxembourg-based SES, which has a 50-satellite fleet in geostationary orbit, is asking the FCC for three separate approvals. The first is an amendment to a previous modification to its network to permit the addition of eight new satellites into the same equatorial, 8,200-kilometer orbit. O3b now wants to add additional frequencies on four of those eight satellites.

The eight spacecraft are under construction at Thales Alenia Space of France Italy and are scheduled for launches, four at a time, on two Europeanized Russian Soyuz rockets operated by Europe’s Arianespace launch-service provider in 2017 and 2018.

A second request is that O3b be allowed to operate a constellation of up to 24 satellites, called O3bN, also in circular equatorial orbit, but using a wider range of Ka-band radio frequencies.

O3b’s third request is for a license to operate up to 16 satellites in inclined orbit and flying at an altitude of 8,062 kilometers and inclined 70 degrees relative to the equator. The constellation, called O3bI, would be deployed in two orbital planes of eight satellites each and would also use Ka-band.

O3b said that from its equatorial orbit its service is assured from between 63 degrees north and 63 degrees south latitude. The O3bI constellation would extend that to full-Earth coverage.

The company said the two new constellations would operate separately from the current O3b network, although the equatorial-orbit spacecraft could be used if needed to fill in capacity on the existing network following a launch or in-orbit failure that created a gap in coverage.

Interference mitigation may get harder

O3b’s current constellation, which has a U.S. license, has had a relatively easy time of it with respect to signal-interference mitigation because no other non-geostationary-orbit satellite systems have as yet received a license to operate.

In the case of the [inclined-orbit] satellites, there is a potential for more in-line interference with other inclined [non-geostationary] systems,” O3b allowed, adding that since its inclined-orbit is comprised of only 16 satellites, the interference issue should not be insurmountable.

“Currently there are no other [non-geostationary] satellite systems licensed by the Commission, or granted U.S. market access, that serve customers within the Ka-band frequency ranges,” O3b said.

That is likely to change. The O3b and ViaSat FCC submissions were in response to the agency’s call for non-geostationary proposals to make themselves known by Nov. 15 so that they could be compared with OneWeb LLC.

OneWeb has 11 new friends at the FCC

The agency has already received a license request from OneWeb, of Britain’s Channel Islands, which is building a network of 700-plus satellites in low Earth orbit using Ku-band spectrum to communicate with user terminals and Ka-band to communicate with the network gateway Earth stations.

Eleven proposed networks were submitted under the same FCC-imposed deadline, including well-known proposals such as SpaceX’s 4,000-satellite network, Telesat’s 117-satellite constellation, a 60-satellite Ka-band constellation proposal from Boeing and LeoSat’s network.

Other proposals came from Audacy Corp., Karousel, Space Norway,  Kepler Communications and Theia Holdings.

In addition to these companies, O3b and other proposed systems employing Ka-band from non-geostationary orbit will need to assure regulators that they will not interfere with mobile satellite services provider Iridium Communications of McLean, Virginia, whose user communications links are in L-band but which uses Ka-band links to its gateway Earth stations.