ViaSat plans massive ground network of smaller gateways for ViaSat-2 and ViaSat-3 satellites
WASHINGTON — To maximize the capacity from its soon-to-launch ViaSat-2 high-throughput satellite, ViaSat intends to deploy twice as many ground stations as it did for ViaSat-1.
For its forthcoming trio of ViaSat-3-series satellites, ViaSat wants “hundreds of gateways” to ensure sure each satellite is capable of hitting the 1 terabit-per-second throughput benchmark the Carlsbad, California-based operator set last year.
Speaking with investors May 23, ViaSat Chairman and CEO Mark Dankberg said the only way to guarantee each satellite hits its throughput goals was to modernize the ground infrastructure that links the satellites back to the internet.
“The maximum amount of user bandwidth a broadband satellite can deliver to its users can’t be anymore than the amount it draws from the fiber internet backbone,” he said. “So to get more capacity, you need more gateways.”
Dankberg said the company’s research and development efforts have yielded a gateway system that is significantly lower cost and will recoup the $100 million ViaSat spent on the ground infrastructure for ViaSat-1 through capital investment savings.
Prepping for ViaSat-2
The 6,400-kilogram ViaSat-2 satellite, built by Boeing Satellite Systems International, is scheduled to launch June 1, on an Ariane 5 rocket. The satellite enables more than twice the 140 gigabits per second of capacity ViaSat-1 has, and boasts seven times the coverage area, beaming high throughput Ka-band capacity over North America, the top of South America, and across the North Atlantic Ocean out to Europe.
ViaSat used part of the company’s fourth quarter fiscal year 2017 earnings conference call to showcase the fruits of its R&D on both the space segment and ground segment sides of ViaSat-2 and 3. Dankberg said ViaSat-1 has 20 gateways that use large, 7-meter antennas and a building to house additional equipment for connecting to fiber internet backbones.
“The [ViaSat-2] gateway antenna is much smaller,” Dankberg said. “All of the ground equipment needed to support it is housed in just two small utility cabinets. There will eventually be more than twice as many gateways for ViaSat-2 than for ViaSat-1, but we can light up the whole satellite with only about half the fully-built quantity.”
In a telephone interview May 24, Dankberg said ViaSat-2 will have 45 gateways, each costing less than half that of a ViaSat-1 gateway. That lower costs comes, in part, from safety in numbers. Dankberg said having so many gateways means each doesn’t have to be built to perfection, because if one fails, others will pick up the slack.
“As an example, with ViaSat-1 you might want a gateway up 99.9 percent of the time, because if a gateway goes down you’ve got tens of thousands of people in coverage without service. If you make the gateway reliability 98 or 99 percent, that last 0.1 or 0.2 percent is so expensive that you can save millions of dollars per gateway and still have high reliability, but now the 1 percent of the time that gateway is down you’ve got several others that are serving all the subscribers,” he explained.
Lower cost backhaul is another reason, he said. Smaller gateways means ViaSat can place them at popular internet access points along fiber backbones — a proximity that gateways the size of a building can’t always achieve.
Each antenna for a ViaSat-2 gateway will measure slightly over 4-meters across, he said.
“These smaller, much less expensive gateways can be located in more favorable locations with lower cost fiber access, while also delivering higher network reliability and greater security than is possible with a ViaSat-1 architecture,” Dankberg said during the May 23 investor call. “This all derives from the core portions of our R&D investments.”
ViaSat spent $129.6 million on independent R&D during its latest fiscal year, which ended March 31, up substantially from last year’s $77.2 million investment. The company did not break out how much of that spending went toward teleport infrastructure. Other chunks of R&D went toward projects such as the spacecraft side of ViaSat-3 and hardware for delivering internet service to airline passengers.
Scaling up for ViaSat-3
Dankberg told SpaceNews that ViaSat increasing the number of gateways by “almost a factor of 10” for the ViaSat-3 satellites the company is co-developing with Boeing.
“We can have instead of dozens of gateways, hundreds of gateways, but now each gateway is really more the size of a VSAT antenna, less than 2-meters,” he said. “And then with those gateways it’s the same principle, but your data can be distributed among hundreds of gateways. The reliability of any particular gateway doesn’t matter that much: now they can be really inexpensive, way under $1 million a piece.”
Those gateways won’t have to be distributed globally either, he said, despite ViaSat-3 being a global system.
ViaSat has the first two ViaSat-3 satellites under construction with Boeing — the first for the Americas and the second for Europe, the Middle East and Africa — but has yet to order the third, which would cover the Asia-Pacific. The Asian market’s regulatory fragmentation, including the two biggest markets of India and China, make the region challenging for conducting business, especially as a U.S. company. Dankberg said ViaSat is likely to proceed with the third satellite, but will make a decision toward the end of the calendar year.
In addition to shrinking gateway sizes, ViaSat also miniaturized the waveguides and other hardware from ViaSat-1, which were as big as dining room tables, to modules capable of being held in a person’s hands. Dankberg said ViaSat considered using these communications modules for low-Earth orbit satellites, but concluded this wouldn’t be as cost-effective as geosynchronous satellites because of shortened spacecraft lifetimes and the need to mass produce other spacecraft systems. LEO satellites would also spend too much time over the Earth’s poles and out of customer reach, he said.
ViaSat has filed with the Federal Communications Commission for Medium Earth Orbit satellites in Ka- and V-band. Dankberg said while the company is critical of LEO, ViaSat is still evaluating the tradeoffs between geo- and non-geosynchronous systems.
Following the money
ViaSat reported $1.6 billion in revenue for fiscal year 2017, up 10 percent from 2016, and gained new contracts worth $1.7 billion. Dankberg said government revenue grew 20 percent year over year, and inflight connectivity sales by 40 percent.
ViaSat’s satellite services revenue grew 13 percent to $629.6 million, with higher average revenues per user among residential broadband customers outpacing losses from subscriber churn. The company expects subscriber numbers to continue contracting modestly in favor of higher paying customers until ViaSat-2 comes online at the end of the year, alleviating capacity constraints. ViaSat tallied approximately 659,000 subscribers at the close of fiscal year 2017.
Commercial network revenues decreased by 2.4 percent to $244.6 million, a drop the company attributed to ViaSat-3 spending.