ViaSat-3’s Falcon Heavy launch slips into early 2023

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TAMPA, Fla. — Viasat said Nov. 8 its first ViaSat-3 broadband satellite will not be ready to launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket this year.

The operator now expects the satellite will be shipped from Boeing’s manufacturing facilities in California to SpaceX’s launchpad in Florida in time for a launch in the first quarter of 2023.

ViaSat-3’s deployable subsystems are currently being inspected and reintegrated into launch configuration following successful environmental and ground tests, Viasat CEO Mark Dankberg said during the company’s financial results call.

He said Viasat is working with SpaceX to target a launch in the “earlier part of the quarter,” but this depends on the timing of “some U.S. national priority launches” using the same Falcon Heavy launchpad.

Arcturus, the first commercial small satellite built by San Francisco-based startup Astranis, is slated to join the launch as a secondary payload.

It marks the latest delay for Viasat’s next-generation constellation of three ViaSat-3 satellites, which were initially due to begin launching in 2019 before being caught up in supply chain issues.

Recent production and testing setbacks have prompted other companies to announce additional delays for their next-generation constellations.

SES said Nov. 3 delays to launch initial O3b mPower satellites had pushed the broadband network’s service debut from the second to the third quarter of 2023.

Maxar Technologies said that same day that plans to launch the first two imaging satellites for its delayed WorldView Legion constellation have slipped out of 2022 into January 2023. 

Each Viasat-3 aims to provide more than one terabit a second of broadband capacity from geostationary orbit (GEO) — three times faster than the operator’s ViaSat-2 satellite that launched in 2017.

The first ViaSat-3 will focus on covering the Americas. The second, targeting Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, remains on schedule for a launch in the summer of 2023. The company plans to deploy the third ViaSat-3 covering the Asia Pacific region six months later.

Dankberg said during its Nov. 8 financial results call that initial work has started on developing ViaSat-4, which aims to bring another seven terabits per second of broadband capacity to the Americas.

The company declined to disclose a timeframe for launching ViaSat-4.

ViaSat-3 transformation

Viasat said it needs ViaSat-3 to relieve broadband capacity constraints that are holding back the operator’s growth.

A decline in U.S. fixed broadband revenue largely offset significant year-on-year growth in the company’s commercial inflight connectivity (IFC) business for the three months to the end of September.

The operator expects continued challenges to grow its U.S. fixed broadband services until its Americas-focused ViaSat-3 enters service, although customers reining in spending amid soaring inflation and competition from SpaceX’s Starlink broadband constellation also weighed on subscriber numbers.

To boost revenues in the run-up to ViaSat-3, Dankberg said Viasat is planning to work with a partner to provide service plans offering “a lot more bandwidth” for specific streaming services.

Overall revenue for the three months to the end of September increased 6% year-over-year to $745 million. Adjusted EBITDA, or earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization, jumped 21% to $188 million. 

Viasat attributed the growth to its strong IFC performance during the quarter, and damages received from litigation against optical networking solutions provider Acacia Communications, which had failed to pay royalties on a technology it used from the satellite operator.

However, Viasat dampened its outlook for the year to the end of March, its fiscal year 2023, following the ViaSat-3 setback and issues caused by macroeconomic challenges, including delayed deliveries by aircraft manufacturers of planes needing IFC services.

Viasat now anticipates “mid-single digit” revenue and adjusted EBITDA growth for FY2023 compared with FY2022, which “is slightly lower than our previous guidance.”

Direct-to-smartphone opportunity

Longer term, Viasat expects the $2 billion sale of its tactical data communications business and the $7 billion acquisition of British satellite operator Inmarsat — both subject to regulatory approvals — will position the company for significant growth.

Inmarsat would transform Viasat into one of the largest holders of global mobile satellite spectrum (MSS).

According to Dankberg, MSS is better suited for direct-to-smartphone services than plans by companies, including Starlink, to deploy this capability with repurposed terrestrial wireless frequencies.

The need to avoid interfering with signals of various mobile network operators on a country-by-country basis means repurposing terrestrial spectrum is going to be “very complicated in most markets,” he said.

Viasat is looking into the advantages of providing direct-to-smartphone services from GEO or low Earth orbit, and Dankberg said the operator could partner “with other holders of spectrum on that opportunity.”

Providing these capabilities “at higher speeds and greater scale” will require new space systems, he said, adding this is at least two to three years away for any direct-to-smartphone provider.