Virgin America partnered with ViaSat to deliver high-speed WiFi to the airline's A320 passengers. Credit: Virgin America

PARIS — Satellite broadband services and hardware provider ViaSat Inc. on Jan. 6 delivered a broadside against competitor Gogo Inc.’s claims that Gogo’s new 2Ku antenna will provide airline passengers with speeds equivalent to ViaSat’s.

ViaSat Chief Executive Mark D. Dankberg also slightly lifted the veil on the company’s planned three-satellite, global-coverage ViaSat-3 program, saying it will feature thousands of spot beams and smaller, less-costly teleports with locations close to fiber networks.

Mark Dankberg
“We don’t have to do a demo flight. Each day we have 400 demo flights,” ViaSat CEO Mark Dankberg said Jan. 6 in Las Vegas. Credit: ViaSat
“We don’t have to do a demo flight. Each day we have 400 demo flights,” ViaSat CEO Mark Dankberg said Jan. 6 in Las Vegas. Credit: ViaSat

ViaSat plans to launch ViaSat-2, with several hundred spot beams, late this year, he said. The launch is scheduled aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, whose inaugural demonstration flight is scheduled for this spring. Industry observers have expressed doubt about whether ViaSat-2 will be launched this year given SpaceX’s jam-packed customer manifest and the fact that Falcon Heavy is a new product.

Chicago-based Gogo Inc. in recent months has said the 2Ku antenna delivers more bits per megahertz leased from multiple Ku-band satellites. Now beginning commercial rollout, 2Ku will provide unsurpassed bandwidth to airline passengers, Gogo officials have said.

After adopting a don’t-criticize-the-neighbors policy, Dankberg removed his gloves Jan. 6 during an investor conference in Las Vegas, organized by investment bank Citigroup during the Consumer Electronics Show.

Is 2Ku as good as Carlsbad, California-based ViaSat’s Exede in the Air?

“No. It makes no sense,” Dankberg said. “The performance we’re getting is an attribute of the [ViaSat-1] satellite. It’s how we got into the satellite services business in the first place. It is 100 times more cost effective in bandwidth utilization than these Ku-band satellites. Making an antenna that’s a little bit bigger doesn’t cover a fraction of that difference in bandwidth.”

Even if the competing service was willing to pay huge sums for its bandwidth, there are limits on how much it can get from the satellites it is using, Dankberg said.

ViaSat’s Exede is now operating on some 450 aircraft, with JetBlue the showcase customer and more recently Virgin America United adopting the ViaSat technology.

ViaSat struggled with credibility issues with airlines early on because of what Dankberg said was a campaign of whispers by competitor Thales LiveTV alleging that Exede did not meet its advertised performance.

The agreement with Virgin America changed all that and brought the ViaSat/Exede brand to the market’s attention by introducing Netflix video streaming on commercial flights. Dankberg said “dozens” of simultaneous Netflix-streaming passengers on a given aircraft can be handled simultaneously with ViaSat-1.

JetBlue’s adoption of Amazon Prime’s streaming service has also quieted the doubters, Dankberg said. In an indirect swipe at Gogo, which recently held a 2Ku demonstration flight for journalists, Dankberg said:

“We have 450 aircraft and the value to the airlines has been powerful. We don’t have to do a demo flight. Each day we have 400 demo flights.”

“We migrated to video streaming as a demonstration of the quality of our service,” Dankberg said. “People could claim they’re providing equivalent service, but the failure mode of streaming video is very vivid: It stops. People get very unhappy.”

There is no way a competitor can reproduce the Exede in the Air performance, on a whole fleet of planes, by using conventional Ku-band satellites, he said.

“It’s not possible. Could you do it with one plane? Sure. Could you do it with 400? No. It’s not possible.”

Dankberg said details of the ViaSat-3 program, whose payload capacity goal is around 1,000 gigabits per second – 140 gigabits per second for ViaSat-1, with ViaSat-2 offering 350 gigabits per second – would be given at the company’s February earnings call.

“For ViaSat-3, we’ve had to develop a lot more of the payload ourselves,” Dankberg said.

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.