ViaSat Head of Business Aviation Services Strategy on the planned launches of ViaSat-2 and ViaSat-3
When it comes to designing satellite systems, ViaSat is hyper-focused on bringing enough capacity to meet long-term user demand for affordable internet services. This concept has put the global broadband services and technology provider in a class of its own. Its next generation of satellite platforms will not simply be more powerful than any competitor’s; they will be orders of magnitude more powerful. It seems a safe prediction that this huge edge will give ViaSat a dominant position in the global connectivity provider space as well as making the much talked-about ‘office in the sky’ on business jets pretty much the equivalent of the office on the ground. We shall see….
Q: ViaSat has made a couple of far-reaching announcements lately, including revealing in February that it plans a new global constellation of three satellites. What does this mean for ViaSat and business aviation?
A: We have indeed made two major announcements that affect Europe particularly as far as the global aviation connectivity market is concerned. The first announcement unveiled our ViaSat-3 constellation, three satellites positioned to provide total global coverage. Each of the three satellites will have over 1,000 Gigabits per second (Gbps) of capacity. This means that each of them will have more capacity than is contained in all the commercial satellites that are operating today.
It is worth looking at how things have progressed in this respect. When we launched ViaSat-1, it had 72 spot beams. ViaSat-2 will have several hundred spot beams and ViaSat-3 will have thousands of spot beams per satellite. The first member of the ViaSat-3 constellation will launch in 2019 and will be over the Americas. The second will cover Europe, Middle East and Africa while the third is planned for the Asia Pacific market. ViaSat-2 will be launched within the next 12 months by our launch partner, Arianespace. We expect Arianespace and SpaceX to share the launch duties for the ViaSat-3 constellation.
Looking at capacity comparisons for ViaSat-3 – we have a significant advantage. For example, Inmarsat’s Ka-band satellites each have six Gbps of capacity against 1,000+ Gbps of capacity for each of our ViaSat-3 satellites. The additional capacity and coverage with ViaSat-3 ensures we can offer every device on an aircraft the necessary broadband speeds for advanced connectivity and video streaming capabilities as well as future bandwidth-intensive applications. Others talk about speed, but the real need is for capacity – and lots of it at the right economics – to serve hundreds if not thousands of users in the same geographic area, or in this case, on the same aircraft or airspace at a cost that is affordable.
Q: This is a tremendous amount of capacity per satellite. Are you just keeping up with demand or getting well ahead of it?
A: Demand has been growing at a tremendous rate and there is no sign that this hunger for bandwidth will hit a ceiling any time soon. It is amusing now to recall that when we launched ViaSat-1 our stock price dropped dramatically because many financial analysts said it was futile to put so much capacity in space. No one would ever need it! Today in the commercial airline space we are delivering terabits of data to just three airlines in the U.S., so consumption is huge, with the potential demand being even bigger. With all the business jets we serve, demand continues to mushroom!
Q: And the second announcement?
A: Our second big announcement is that we have agreed to form a joint venture with Eutelsat, in which we have a 51% ownership stake in the retail services business and a 49% interest in the wholesale services business. Eutelsat will contribute its current European broadband business including the KA-SAT satellite and for future capacity, the partnership will expect to use the ViaSat-3 platform once it is in service in 2020.
We already have a strong partnership with Eutelsat, as we provide the broadband technologies for KA-SAT gateways and terminals.
Q: Although it has nothing to do with business aviation directly, your direct-to-homes retail business has the capacity to be a real cash generator for ViaSat does it not? Is it mainly for rural areas or does it play as well in the metropolitan markets?
A: There is no doubt that the consumer business is very strongly positive as far as cash generation is concerned. We have nearly 700,000 users in the USA already. When we launched, we expected to appeal virtually exclusively to rural homes where there was no easy access to fibre based internet. What we found, however, is that we have at least as many users in metropolitan areas, which is very pleasing. We expect to build up our European retail services business substantially through the Eutelsat agreement and we will be looking to extend our direct-to-homes service with partners in other markets, as well as across the Americas, in due course, once ViaSat-2 and ViaSat-3 become operational.
We also have very strong appeal in large countries with far-flung rural communities. In fact, we worked with Australia’s nbn™ to provide our ground-based communications equipment. Our ground stations were built in specific locations across Australia to maximise both the availability and capacity of the system. The nbn satellite/ground station system was designed to deliver broadband services to more than 200,000 rural and remote homes and businesses with wholesale download speeds of up to 25Mbps.
Earlier in the year, we signed a memorandum of understanding agreement with Qantas Airways to bring fast, high-quality in-flight internet connectivity to their domestic fleet by using our single, hybrid Ku/Ka-band antenna. By using our hybrid antenna, we can offer internet service across our global Ku-band network and nbn’s Sky Muster™ high-capacity Ka-band satellites.
Q: How much of the network do you provide? For example, with Inmarsat’s KA Band system, Honeywell is providing the antenna for commercial and business aircraft.
A: That is a great question. We are a vertically integrated broadband internet services company, which means we do the whole thing. We design the satellite, build key portions of the satellite payload as well as provide the ground stations, the aircraft antennas and terminals. This vertical integration gives us tighter control over the quality of the broadband network we provide and means that we can provide a very high standard of service to all our clients.
Q: What is the investment required for a new satellite?
A: If you take the build, launch and insurance costs into account, the total cost for a new satellite, is about half a billion dollars. However, where we gain is that if you take our three generations of satellites, ViaSat-1, 2 and 3, the third generation, ViaSat-3, is about the same investment as ViaSat-1 or ViaSat-2, even though it has vastly more capacity.
Q: What are you busy with right now, with the launch of ViaSat-2 being imminent?
A: From a business and commercial aviation perspective, we are very busy providing new radomes for our OEM partners. A radome is the antenna housing on the aircraft, and the new radomes will be transparent to both the Ka and the Ku bands. My own personal responsibilities are in the large business jet space and the ACJs and BBJs. Plus we work with MROs around the world to ensure that they have the skills to install the in-flight entertainment systems that will use our connectivity capabilities.