ViaSat expects ViaSat-2 to make it more competitive with cellular’s ‘unlimited’ offerings

ViaSat will be getting a lot more bang for its buck—and thereby delivering the same—after the successful launch of its ViaSat-2 satellite Thursday.

Aboard an Arianespace Ariane 5 ECA launch vehicle, the geostationary satellite shot into space from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana, at 4:45 p.m. PDT June 1. ViaSat reported that the first signals from the satellite were acquired shortly after launch through a ground station at Hassan, India.

ViaSat expects it will take several months for ViaSat-2 to reach its final orbital destination, which, for those keeping track, will be located at 69.9° west longitude.

Once in place, it’s going to significantly improve speeds and expand the footprint of ViaSat’s broadband services across North America, Central America, the Caribbean, a portion of northern South America and across the Atlantic Ocean between North America and Europe.

ViaSat is talking about the ability to offer 25, 50 or even 100 Mbps speeds to homes, rivaling terrestrial broadband offerings, while simultaneously serving thousands of passengers on cruise ships and in airplanes. It’s also able to move capacity to where the demand is—for example, where cruise ships need it—and it will provide the kind of service that would allow people flying from Los Angeles to Istanbul to stream movies and video at 35,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean, regardless of how many people and devices are connected.

ViaSat already serves rural areas of North America, but the ViaSat-2 will make it even more competitive.

“Today we have a $50 broadband plan to rural America. It’s pretty good, this one is going to be better,” ViaSat President Rick Baldridge said during an interview with FierceWirelessTech.

All of which is to say, it's going to be in a position to better compete with terrestrial cellular services. In fact, “we’ll be better than those services,” in terms of speeds and volume, he said.

Cellular operators are offering what they call unlimited data plans, but they really aren’t unlimited if you read the details, he noted. ViaSat is calling its plans “virtually unlimited plans,” which will have some caps, but that’s mostly about video and the rate at which it’s delivered.  

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The new satellite is also going to help ViaSat further compete for business from airlines, an area where it’s already seeing a big uptick. Last year, American Airlines decided to switch more than 500 domestic aircraft to ViaSat rather than continue with the much slower GoGo service. JetBlue Airways, for its part, is offering free internet services to passengers via ViaSat that support streaming video from Netflix and Amazon video.

One of the things about satellite technology is the ability to get coverage or capacity, but it’s really hard to do both, he said.

“It’s very important for us to cover the North Atlantic bridge,” a bridge from North America to Europe, where it partners with Eutelsat to provide coverage, Baldridge said. “We’ll have high capacity Ka all the way from the southern part of Central America across North America to Eastern Europe.”

Boeing manufactured the ViaSat-2 to ViaSat’s designs; it’s the largest commercial satellite that Boeing has ever built. ViaSat-2 initially was supposed to launch on a SpaceX rocket, but SpaceX was late with the Falcon Heavy rocket so ViaSat switched to the Arianespace launch vehicle.

Coming after this will be ViaSat-3 satellites that they’re working on right now. Plans call for launching three of those satellites, and each one of them will cover one-third of the visible earth. At that point, they’ll have global coverage, and that’s scheduled to arrive in the 2020-2021 timeframe. Boeing is also building the first two of the three ViaSat-3 satellites.

Interestingly, ViaSat is building the payload for ViaSat-3 at its own facilities in Phoenix, Arizona. “We can’t really get the kind of capacity we’re getting with ViaSat-3 without invention of new payload technology,” Baldridge explained.

ViaSat, a recent member of the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance, has been at odds with CTIA for some time in the FCC’s Spectrum Frontiers proceeding. For example, ViaSat explained in an April 28 FCC filing that it expressly opposed CTIA’s call for “moving forward” with making the 40-42 GHz, 47.2-50.2 GHz and 50.4-52.4 GHz band segments available for licensed, terrestrial service. Similarly, it opposed creating a contiguous 5.5 gigahertz block of spectrum for terrestrial applications by “eliminating the longstanding primary designations of the majority of this spectrum for satellite operations.”

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Baldridge acknowledged the great amount of skepticism the cellular industry traditionally has had with satellites. But he also said ViaSat believes the technology exists to share 5G-designated spectrum.

To be clear, “we don’t plan to be a 5G cellular operator,” he said. “We plan to use the 5G spectrum to deliver satellite capacity,” and in so doing, it’s come up with a way of sharing that doesn’t interfere with the terrestrial uses of 5G.

Between Google and Facebook, SpaceX and initiatives like OneWeb’s plan to launch a constellation of satellites, a lot of initiatives are underway to connect the unconnected.

As for other satellite ventures, “we hope they’re successful,” he said. “Unsuccessful satellite projects aren’t very good for us.”