Dankberg teases ViaSat-4 specs, still mulling MEO constellation

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MOUNTAIN VIEW, California — Viasat says that co-building its ViaSat-3 satellites with Boeing has given the company experience it can leverage to multiply the capacity achievable with a next-generation ViaSat-4 system.

“It’s really the first generation of a satellite constellation that will be integrated in this way,” Viasat CEO Mark Dankberg said of the three ViaSat-3 satellites it has under construction, each of which will carry a terabit or more of capacity. “We just wanted to show how we can get another factor of four, five, or six out of very straightforward evolutions of what we’re doing.”

Viasat is building the payloads for its trio of ViaSat-3 satellites in its own clean room in Tempe, Arizona, and relying on Boeing for the spacecraft platforms. The first of the three is projected to launch in 2021, over the Americas. 

Viasat hasn’t set a launch date for the first ViaSat-4, but Dankberg, speaking at the Satellite Innovation conference, said the company wanted “to make the point that Viasat-3 wasn’t the end state of what we’re trying to do.”

Dankberg said Viasat’s willingness to be so involved in building its satellites gives the company an advantage over competing operators. 

Viasat’s newest satellite, ViaSat-2, has 260 gigabits of capacity, making it the highest-throughput satellite in orbit. The satellite would have had 300 gigabits of capacity, but an antenna problem that surfaced shortly after launch in 2017 stunted its full potential. 

Viasat is also still considering a constellation of medium Earth orbit satellites, another executive said at the conference. 

Ric VanderMeulen, Viasat’s vice president of space and satellite broadband, said the company is already providing MEO services using another operator’s satellites. 

VanderMeulen didn’t name Viasat’s partner, but the only operator of MEO broadband satellites is SES with its 20 O3b spacecraft. 

“I think we will be in other orbits, maybe someday, as we have to fill out the other dimensions of value,” VanderMeulen said. “We may choose to do that with our own [satellites], or we may choose to do that the way we’re doing it today with a partnership.”

“We have a MEO filing and I think a lot of people are waiting to see what we can do with that,” he added. 

Viasat filed with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission in 2016 for a 24-satellite MEO constellation. Last year the company revised that filing down to 20 satellites, saying the smaller number would have the same coverage, but less of an interference risk with other constellations. 

Dankberg and VanderMeulen still emphasized geostationary orbit as the best vantage point from which to steer capacity over the Earth’s surface. Satellites in closer orbits have a smaller field of view, and cannot address as many customers, they said. But the reduced latency of MEO, and especially low Earth orbit systems, has its appeal, they acknowledged. 

Dankberg said Viasat is blending its geostationary satellite connectivity with low-latency terrestrial infrastructure so that customers can route traffic based on the best solution. The company is “very interested” in doing the same with LEO networks, too, he said.