Viasat to start Asia-Pacific ViaSat-3 satellite this year

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WASHINGTON — Satellite operator Viasat is in discussions with manufacturers to procure its third high-capacity ViaSat-3 satellite, CEO Mark Dankberg said May 24.

The satellite, which Viasat intends to order this year, will serve the Asia-Pacific region. Dankberg said designing such a satellite presents more difficult regulatory and geographic coverage challenges than the two ViaSat-3 satellites already under construction. One of those satellites, ViaSat-3 Americas, will serve North and South America. The other, ViaSat-3 EMEA, will serve Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Viasat’s budget is “a little tighter” after Eutelsat’s surprise decision last month to forgo splitting the cost of the $650 million ViaSat-3 EMEA satellite, “but it’s manageable,” Dankberg said during an earnings call. 

The third ViaSat-3 satellite will complete Carlsbad, California-based Viasat’s quest for global Ka-band coverage with a trio of broadband satellites each capable of at least a terabit of capacity.

“We are negotiating with the spacecraft manufacturers to get a good deal on that,” Dankberg said of ViaSat-3 Asia Pacific. “I think there is a pretty good shot we will be able to announce something probably in the next couple of quarters.”

Viasat ordered the first two ViaSat-3 satellites from Boeing in early 2016, but full construction only started in September. Viasat is more involved in building the satellites than a typical operator, taking a lead role in payload development while relying on Boeing for the satellite platform.

Dankberg said the Asia-Pacific satellite order is trailing two years behind ViaSat-3 Americas and ViaSat-3 EMEA because of the difficulty in designing a coverage footprint. In a March interview, Dankberg said the challenge in preparing Viasat’s Asia-Pacific satellite has been the absence of a sure-fire anchor market on which to build the rest of the business case. ViaSat-3 Americas has the United States while ViaSat-3 EMEA has Western Europe, he said. Asia’s two largest markets, China and India, present formidable regulatory challenges to foreign operators, preventing either from serving as a similarly reliable backstop.

“What we are really trying to do is come up with a different configuration that still gives us the whole visible Earth coverage that will complete our global coverage, but gives us a different anchor market that we can count on,” he told SpaceNews. “One that is leading is the mobility market, so aeronautical and government mobility. We think we will ultimately have a focus on some combination of Australia and South East Asia.”

Viasat already has a presence in Australia with NBN, the government-run telco that operates the twin Sky Muster high-throughput satellites for broadband in rural parts of the country. NBN is letting Viasat use the Ka-band satellites to provide inflight Wi-Fi to Qantas Airways.

NBN said last year amid customer complaints about network congestion and slow speeds that it was looking into adding a third satellite and would evaluate what role, if any, a terabit-per-second spacecraft could play in its network evolution plans. An NBN official told SpaceNews in February it has no need for a third satellite.

During the May 24 earnings call, Dankberg said Viasat is talking to prospective partners, but the company’s default plan for ViaSat-3 Asia Pacific is to press forward by itself.

Viasat has been “converging on the right configuration” for ViaSat-3 Asia Pacific’s final design. “We also have some technical improvements that will increase the capacity pretty meaningfully from what we were able to do with the first two,” he said.

Dankberg didn’t give a date for when Viasat-3 Asia Pacific would launch or enter service. ViaSat-3 Americas is scheduled to start service in the second half of 2020, followed by ViaSat-3 EMEA six months later, he said.

Viasat has a launch contract with Arianespace for an unspecified ViaSat-3 mission on an Ariane 5 rocket, and is still listed on the SpaceX manifest as a Falcon Heavy customer. The ViaSat-2 spacecraft launched last year by an Ariane 5 was originally slated for Falcon Heavy. SpaceX’s manifest doesn’t list what satellite Viasat will launch with Falcon Heavy, or when.