ViaSat accelerates investment in ViaSat-3 terabit-per-second spacecraft
PARIS – Satellite broadband hardware and service provider ViaSat Inc. on May 24 said it would accelerate investment in its terabit-per-second-throughput ViaSat 3 satellite program and continue to invest in licenses for its airline-connectivity business.
The company also posted strong growth in its U.S. Defense Department business, both in mobile broadband and tactical radio provision, despite the fact that ViaSat is not reliant on the U.S. military’s “programs of record,” meaning programs given formal development status in the military budget.
ViaSat’s message is that, commercial or military, customers want the broadband spigot to be turned to maximum bandwidth.
In a conference call with investors, ViaSat Chief Executive Mark D. Dankberg dispelled any doubts ViaSat’s about the company’s commitment to ViaSat-3, which for now is a two-satellite, billion-dollar-plus program.
Dankberg said ViaSat recently opened a new satellite production facility in Arizona, including a cleanroom and high bay to build two ViaSat-3 payloads at a time.
In what is perhaps a lingering consequence of its previous struggle with a satellite builder over intellectual property rights, ViaSat is building the two ViaSat-3 satellites’ payloads. Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, California, is building the satellite skeletal structures.
“Growing market interest in our technology is motivating us to invest to get this productivity gains and geographic coverage of ViaSat-3 class satellites as fast as we reasonably can,” Dankberg said.
To fund payload development, ViaSat is increasing its R&D spending in fiscal-year 2017, which began last April 1, by 50 percent, to around $115 million. That follows a year when R&D increased 65 percent.
The company said the investment would be a drag on profit in fiscal-year 2017, which is why ViaSat stock suffered in May 25 trading on the U.S. Nasdaq exchange. ViaSat also announced it had secured a 60 percent increase, to $800 million, in an existing revolving loan to fund ViaSat-3.
R&D investment in commercial airline connectivity
Most of the spending is devoted to ViaSat-3 and represents investment that otherwise would be part of the payments to the satellite prime contractor. Most satellite operators do not build their own payloads. But some will be to secure licenses, called Supplemental Type Certificates (STCs) to allow its airline connectivity hardware to be fitted onto aircraft.
ViaSat Chief Financial Officer Shawn Duffy said the STC spending would be “success-based,” presumably meaning it would be incurred only following contracts with airlines or with high confidence of an imminent contract.
The company added 30 new commercial aircraft to the fleet of planes equipped with ViaSat’s airborne connectivity service, bringing the total to 476 as of March 31.
When military and business-aviation planes are added, the total ViaSat-equipped fleet is more than 1,000 planes, Dankberg said.
ViaSat is in an intense competition with at least four other companies trying to line up airline commitments to their on-board WiFi service. For many airlines, only a global system will do, which is why ViaSat needs to expand from its current focus over the Americas.
In addition to its higher throughput, ViaSat-3 will expand the geographic footprint of the company’s Exede in the Air product into Europe, the Middle East and Central and South Asia. A third ViaSat-3, not yet under contract, is envisioned over the Asia-Pacific.
ViaSat already offers a near-global network using its own Ka-band satellites over the Americas and leased Ku-band capacity elsewhere. The company on May 24 announced a contract with business-jet builder Dassault Aviation to use this Ku-band network for the new Falcon 8X.
U.S. consumer broadband subs, ARPU grow despite capacity crunch
ViaSat’s consumer broadband business in the United States has suffered from the lack of available ViaSat-1 satellite capacity in high-demand regions. ViaSat-2 is scheduled for launch late this year or early in 2017 and is expected to solve that problem in addition to expanding Via:Sat’s coverage into the North Atlantic air corridor.
Because ViaSat-1 beams over high-demand areas are about full, ViaSat has been unable to grow its subscriber base much. But the company said it added 9,500 new subscribers, bringing the total to 697,000 as of March 31.
The capacity shortage has not prevented ViaSat from offering new, higher-speed packages and other service enhancements that have increased average monthly subscriber revenue to $58.46.
Dankberg spent part of the investor call summarizing his view that most satellite fleet operators are heavily invested in a business model in which bandwidth is scarce. He said the company’s imminent ViaSat-2 and future ViaSat-3 programs have forced satellite competitors to recast their broadband offers.
“Pretty much every competitor is reframing their go-to-market strategy around either imitating, or denying the existence of, our competitive advantages,” Dankberg said, adding that the new Ku-band spot-beam high-throughput satellites, while better than existing wide-beam satellites, are still “much worse than what ViaSat-1 is delivering now.”
Hand-held military radios to add to military division growth
ViaSat’s Government Systems division revenue for the year ending March 31 was up 13 percent over the previous year, to $607 million. EBITDA, or earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, was up 21 percent, to $144 million.
ViaSat has said the U.S. military is slowly moving to the higher-bandwidth potential of Ka-band. The extent and speed of this transaction are a subject of debate between Ka- and Ku-band advocates.
In addition to broadband mobility, the biggest driver of ViaSat’s military business, the company has had success with its aircraft radio terminals. Testing and earlier this year began tests with the military of ViaSat’s BATS-D, or Battlefield Awareness and Targeting System-Dismounted. These are hand-held radios that give individual soldiers the same basic transmission capacity up to now reserved for airborne platforms.
BATS-D plus ViaSat’s Small Tactical Terminal “extend the capabilities of Link 16 to hundreds, and if successful ultimately tens of thousands, of participants that otherwise would not have had access to that valuable real time situational awareness,” Dankberg said.