ViaSat Eyes Late-2016 Launch for Next-gen Broadband Satellite

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PARIS — Satellite broadband hardware and service provider ViaSat Inc. on Sept. 9 said its goal outside the United States is to enter regions where traditional satellites are clinging to video market share and to displace them with Ka-band alternatives.

The company also said its ViaSat-2 satellite is now likely to be launched in the fourth quarter of 2016 — several months later than initially planned — aboard a Falcon Heavy rocket being designed by SpaceX of Hawthorne, California.

In a presentation to a Bank of America Merrill Lynch investor conference, ViaSat President Rick Baldridge said ViaSat’s understanding is that Falcon Heavy will debut around May, a date that represents a slip as SpaceX recovers from a June 28 failure of its Falcon 9 rocket.

Baldridge suggested that the move to a late-2016 launch date for ViaSat-2 is not solely due to SpaceX delays, but also because of the satellite’s production status at Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, California.

“From a spacecraft availability standpoint — Boeing is building the spacecraft — it’s about the same time,” Baldridge said.

Carlsbad, California-based ViaSat wants ViaSat-2 in service as soon as possible. The company is already turning away prospective consumer broadband customers in high-demand regions where the current ViaSat-1 satellite’s beams are filling up.

Baldridge said that if SpaceX encounters further delays in returning to flight or qualifying the Falcon Heavy, ViaSat may exercise an option with Europe’s Arianespace consortium for a launch on an Ariane 5 rocket. But in addition to being more expensive than the Falcon Heavy, he said, the Ariane 5 alternative launch would not be available until 2017.

Rick Baldridge
ViaSat President Rick Baldridge suggested that the move to a late-2016 launch date for ViaSat-2 is not solely due to SpaceX delays, but also because of the satellite’s production status at Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, California. Credit: ViaSat

“They get more expensive,” Baldridge said of the Falcon Heavy alternatives. “But having a satellite on the ground is pretty expensive too.”

ViaSat-2, by all accounts, is going to be a Ka-band monster, with seven times the coverage area of ViaSat-1 and more than twice ViaSat-1’s record-breaking 140 gigabits of total throughput.

Baldridge dismissed the current popularity of high-throughput-capacity satellites in C- or Ku-band, saying the greater availability of Ka-band will leave other frequencies in the dust for broadband.

“The state-of-the-art Ku-band satellite when we launched ViaSat-1 [in 2011] was 2-3 gigabits of capacity,” Baldridge said, apparently forgetting that Thaicom’s IPStar/Thaicom-4 Ku-band broadband satellite, launched in 2005, has 45 gigabits of throughput. “The state of the art in Ku-band satellites now is about a single-digit fraction of what ViaSat-2 is going to be.”

Satellite fleet operator Intelsat has said its Epic series of high-throughput satellites, in C- and Ku-band, would have 25-60 gigabits of throughput.

Baldridge said that as the global video market evolves, broadband satellites — terabit-capacity spacecraft are around the corner, he said — will be able to take business from traditional spacecraft and force such a sharp decline in the value of traditional satellite capacity that a teaming between ViaSat and most established fleet operators is difficult to imagine.

ViaSat and Boeing have partnered to propose Ka-band broadband satellites outside the United States, with no success so far.

ViaSat has stopped loading new customers on some ViaSat-1 beams in part to preserve the company’s reputation among its residential customer base, and also to preserve capacity for ViaSat’s airline customers whose planes fly through those regions.

U.S. airliner JetBlue, an early ViaSat-1 customer, has validated ViaSat’s aeronautical service, Exede in the Air, beyond what even ViaSat had expected.

Baldridge said an unscheduled test to determine whether the service could handle adding Amazon Prime video to the JetBlue service resulted in 35 users streaming Amazon high-definition video on a flight on which there were already 52 other users, and in an area of the United States where other ViaSat-equipped JetBlue airlines were flying and using the ViaSat-1 satellite.

JetBlue offers the basic Exede service free of charge to customers. The cost to the airline is no more than the revenue generated from moving one economy-class passenger into business class on each flight, he said.

Baldridge said the broadband available on JetBlue is better than on many high-priority U.S. military flights and helps explain why ViaSat’s defense business is expected to grow by 20 percent this year. The company has also had success in selling tactical data links equipment to the U.S. Defense Department, often outside of the military’s big-ticket procurement efforts.

“We kind of sneak around the programs of record,” Baldridge said of the company’s recent success in the U.S. defense market. In mobile broadband, ViaSat began selling to U.S. special forces units for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions requiring video streaming, and then won business selling hardware for en-route military aeronautical applications.

“They want high-definition video like everyone else does,” he said.