Viasat adds polar coverage to ground station-as-a-service business

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TAMPA, Fla. — Viasat plans to deploy an antenna in Sweden in April to give its ground station-as-a-service business polar coverage for the first time, the California-based satellite operator said Feb. 9.

Arctic Space Technologies, a Swedish satellite communications provider, is hosting the ground station in a deal that also co-locates a Viasat Real-Time Earth (RTE) facility at a data center for the first time to improve operations. 

Part of a growing space-as-a-service trend in the industry, the RTE network enables satellite operators to provide low-latency products without investing in a dedicated antenna system.

Viasat is setting up its first high-latitude facility for the service to meet increasing demand from Earth observation companies deploying satellites to sun-synchronous orbits, Viasat RTE vice president John Williams told SpaceNews in an interview. 

It is the latest facility in an expanding network that completed its first full year of operations in 2021, after deploying antennas in the U.S., U.K., Australia, Argentina, Australia, and Ghana.

Next on the list are antennas in South Africa and northern Japan, he said, as the company aims to complete its global footprint this year.

“After those two antennas are deployed by this summer, then we have plans to go to southern Japan, Malaysia, Canada [and] maybe second antennas at some of the current sites,” he said.

Viasat hopes to find other opportunities to co-locate antennas with data centers, following a trend that Amazon helped pioneer when it announced its AWS Ground Station service in 2018.

Installing antenna sites near dater centers enables companies to process data from satellites soon after it hits the ground, which improves throughput and latency by reducing the amount that needs to be transmitted to the cloud for further processing.

“The challenge is, data centers aren’t everywhere you need them to be for the geography of a ground station-as-a-service,” Williams added.

Viasat is also still assessing how advantageous data center co-location is for its antenna business. 

“How much different does that site perform than our other sites that aren’t located at data centers?” he asked.

“Does that imply that we need to move to edge computing faster? Those are questions that are still ahead of us.”

Relay foundation

Viasat expects the first of three next-generation ViaSat-3 high-throughput broadband satellites will be launched to geostationary orbit “late summer.” 

The full ViaSat-3 constellation will give the company global coverage, which Williams said its RTE network would use to provide a data-relay service to low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites.

“Just as ViaSat-3 would have the capability to relay information from one point on the ground to another point on the ground — or back and forth to airplanes in our mobility business — we’re going to add the capability to be able to talk to low-Earth-orbiting satellites,” he said.

The LEO capability would enable Viasat’s Real-Time Earth customers to reduce latency further to support new business opportunities in Earth observation and other sectors.

Canadian startup Kepler Communications and other companies are also planning in-orbit relay networks to improve satellite latency. 

Plans to broaden RTE’s services come amid major changes across the wider ground station market.

“What I see is, as new customers have come on, they want more than one ground provider,” Williams said.

“So part of the challenge going forward is how do you integrate with those that in the past may have been your competitors to support those customers and those new business models?”

Japanese debris-removal startup Astroscale, for instance, last year said it had integrated Viasat RTE with three other ground station providers for its ongoing demonstration missions in LEO.

Operators using more inter-satellite links to reduce their reliance on ground infrastructure also threatens to change the shape of the global ground station market.

“I think it balances it out,” Williams said, “maybe you don’t grow ground as much as we’re growing it now in the future when you’ve got more inter-satellite links. 

“But I think they’re complimentary. You still need to command and control the spacecraft.”

According to Williams, operators will most likely also continue to pay a premium to move data through space rather than terrestrially in some cases, making their use of ground stations driven by “the customer’s concept of operations and their business economics.”

He declined to discuss how Viasat’s RTE business could further evolve by adding satellites and infrastructure from Inmarsat, the British satellite operator the company is seeking to buy through a $7.3 billion deal.