Viasat expanding into crowded ground-as-a-service business

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Viasat is placing antennas like this 7.3-meter dish at locations around the world to link with Earth observation satellites in low Earth orbit. Credit: Viasat

Updated Aug. 8 at 10:37 a.m. Eastern with the correct location of Viasat’s U.K. ground station. 

Viasat is building out a network of nine ground stations around the world to downlink data from Earth observation satellites, marking an expansion from the operator’s satellite broadband and hardware business.

Carlsbad, California-based Viasat doesn’t think the market for ground communications is getting too crowded despite the entrance of giants Amazon Web Services and Lockheed Martin last year. “The market space is diverse,” said John Williams, a vice president at Viasat who oversees its Real Time Earth ground network. “It goes from universities to small companies, new startups to big companies, to civil and defense government. No one single ground station provider is going to be a perfect fit for the entire marketplace.”

Viasat has RTE stations in the U.S. states of Georgia and Hawaii, plus a station in Surrey in the United Kingdom. A fourth is under construction in Australia. 

Williams said the RTE network began operations last summer, linking spacecraft for Surrey Satellite Technology Limited. Recently Viasat used the network to connect General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems’ Orbital Test Bed satellite, providing initial communications, control and telemetry services after its launch in June aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. 

Viasat already builds antennas for both satellite operations and user terminals. That foundation gave the company confidence to expand into ground-as-a-service since it can leverage its own technology, Williams said. 

Under development for the past three years, Viasat’s RTE network uses a mix of S-, X- and Ka-band antennas, Williams said. The network can provide downlink speeds reaching 6 gigabits per second, he said. 

Viasat’s interest is in connecting satellites that need to downlink large volumes of data, making remote sensing more interesting than constellations of Internet of Things cubesats, Williams said. 

Viasat wants to spread out ground stations around the world at high latitudes and mid latitudes to ensure its antennas are visible to a wide range of satellites, he said. Areas of interest include Canada, Scandinavia ,the southernmost regions of South America and Africa, and potentially the west coast of Africa, he said. 

Williams said customer demand could cause the final number of RTE stations to increase or decrease. Large constellations and technology advances could lead Viasat to incorporate flat panel antennas one day, he said, since those can link to multiple satellites simultaneously. Dish antennas can only link to one satellite at a time. 

Long term, Viasat wants the RTE network to be a hybrid space and ground network. Williams said that vision involves using the company’s future trio of ViaSat-3 satellites as a relay network for faster data retrieval.

Remote sensing satellites, instead of waiting to pass over a ground station, could instead beam data up to a ViaSat-3 satellite in geostationary orbit. The ViaSat-3 satellite would then transfer that data to a cloud server, he said. 

“The concept is some kind of radio on a low Earth orbit observation spacecraft from one of the many providers out there,” Williams said. “As that Earth observations satellite collected data, it would be offloaded in real time rather than stored.”

Williams declined to give a timeline for when the ViaSat-3 in-space relay system would happen. That part of the RTE network first requires the launch of ViaSat-3. The first ViaSat-3 is projected to launch over the Americas in 2021, with the global network completed during the second half of 2022, according to a June filing with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.