ViaSat Relieved to Reach End of Difficult Road to ViaSat-1 Launch

By | October 20, 2011 | Feature, Telecom

[Satellite News 10-20-11] It began in January 2008, when Eutelsat and ViaSat announced that the two companies had ordered a pair of all Ka-band satellites under collaboration to develop more satellite broadband capacity. At the time, former Eutelsat Chairman and CEO of Giuliano Berretta described the plan as, “crossing a new frontier to a specifically designed infrastructure for interactive consumer services … for millions of homes in Europe and North America that will still be beyond range of terrestrial broadband networks in 2010.”
   Now, three years later, those plans finally came to fruition as ViaSat’s high-throughput, all Ka-band satellite ViaSat-1 was launched into orbit Oct. 19 by International Launch Services (ILS) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on a Proton M rocket – almost 10 months after ILS sent Eutelsat’s Ka-Sat into space.
   “ViaSat-1 has been a complex and challenging project. The ViaSat-1 system, which includes the gateways and user terminals in addition to the satellite, is going to change the way people think about satellite broadband. Now, with the satellite at launch base, we are very close to seeing our vision become a reality,” ViaSat CEO Mark Dankberg told Satellite News.
ViaSat-1 manufacturer Space Systems/Loral (SS/L) confirmed Oct. 20 that the satellite is currently performing post-launch maneuvers according to plan. “The satellite deployed its solar arrays early this morning according to schedule, and tomorrow, it will begin firing its main thruster to maneuver into geostationary orbit,” SS/L said in a statement following yesterday’s launch.
   ViaSat-1’s 140 Gbps of available capacity is more than all other Internet satellites over North America combined. The satellite, based on SS/L’s 1300 platform, aims to provide high-capacity Ka-band spot beam satellite with planned coverage over North America and Hawaii for a service life for 15 or more years. The satellite will be positioned at the 115.1 degrees West longitude orbital slot. The spacecraft features 72 spot beams – 63 of which are owned by satellite operator Telesat and will be used for the Xplornet broadband service to consumers in rural Canada.
   “ViaSat-1 will provide fast and affordable broadband service to all Canadians,” said Telesat President and CEO Dan Goldberg. “Telesat has been making significant investments in its state-of-the-art satellite fleet to improve the delivery of advanced communications services to Canadians. In the case of ViaSat-1, we are pleased to be working with our longstanding customer Xplornet, a pioneer and leader in bringing affordable, reliable and high quality broadband services to rural Canadians.”
   The path to ViaSat-1’s launch was anything but easy for Dankberg, who was forced to patiently endure a series of delays due to issues that were mostly out of his company’s control. In January, damage sustained to the $400 million satellite at SS/L’s manufacturing facility forced ViaSat to push the launch back from its original due date in spring 2011 to that summer. ViaSat said an incident occurred while manufacturer Space Systems/Loral (SS/L) was transporting the Ka-band satellite for testing. SS/L agreed to cover the cost of the repairs.
   ViaSat-1 satellite saw another setback in July when SS/L discovered and reviewed a malfunction in a previous satellite pushed ViaSat-1’s scheduled launch back by a few weeks wait until August or September of 2011. SS/L discovered a solar panel problem on the Telstar 14R satellite that was launched in May. The discovery had prompted SS/L to conduct a failure review analysis of ViaSat-1 as it uses similar components. The Ka-band satellite, expected to launch on an ILS Proton rocket this month, will now have to wait until August or September. The satellite will then enter commercial service approximately two months later.
   Analysts then began voicing concerns over a potential financial setback for ViaSat, stating that the delays could impact the company’s 2012 full-year revenues and EBITDA. “Although management did not disclose the nature of the damage, the relatively short launch delay would seem to suggest that the damage was fairly minor. Loral will undoubtedly perform thorough repairs and quality testing in order to certify the satellite, but ViaSat might still be forced to pay a higher insurance premium due to a presumed greater risk of satellite anomalies,” Raymond James Analyst Chris Quilty told Satellite News after the second delay was announced..
   ViaSat invested approximately $1 billion in the past three years hoping the satellite would make it into orbit in early August as a crucial element of the operator’s future growth strategy. ViaSat-1 also is crucial to developing its valuable in-flight connectivity partnership with JetBlue Airways. “We are aiming to be in service probably in the last quarter of 2012. If it gets the level of traction as in-flight videos, then its a billion-dollar market in five to seven years,” Dankberg said.
   To make matters worse, the ViaSat-1 launch was delayed a third time due to the Russian Space Agency’s (Roskosmos) Proton-M rocket launch failure in August that placed the Express AM-4 communication satellite into a bad orbit and caused the satellite to lose connection with its ground station. Immediately after the failure, the Russian Inter-Agency Commission conducted a formal investigation into the cause of the failure, which temporarily grounded the Proton-M. Roscosmos recently lifted the ban on Proton/Breeze M launch processing during the last week of August following the completion of that investigation. ViaSat would not receive final clearance for its mid-October launch until September.
   The setback took a toll on the ViaSat’s 2011 first quarter net income, which dropped $3.26 million from the same period last year to $1.76 million. Dankberg said the results were anticipated as “revenues and earnings reflected new contract delays in prior periods and costs associated with the ViaSat-1 launch schedule.”
   Now that the satellite has finally launched, ViaSat will look to make up for lost ground by maximizing the spacecraft’s potential for other revenue-generating applications. ViaSat introduced its SurfBeam 2 satellite networking system in July to simultaneously deliver a range of residential, enterprise and mobile broadband services.
   The new SurfBeam 2 system builds off ViaSat’s SurfBeam satellite networking system, with more than 800,000 units shipped and installed in the United States, Canada and Europe, providing access to new transformational high-capacity satellites, including Ka-Sat. The system features higher integration of elements in the modem, RF equipment and gateway electronics and adopts DVB-S2 transmission standards.
   ViaSat also entered talks with the U.S. Department of Defense in August regarding a satellite upgrade to improve ISR capabilities on operations and confirmed that the Pentagon is “very interested to use ViaSat-1” for the project.
   A Sheppard report published in September said military employment of the high-capacity satellite would represent a significant amount of new business. “[The Pentagon deal] would change a lot of things. The Ka-band satellite has the capacity to serve the accelerating growth in bandwidth demand for multimedia Internet access over the next decade. ViaSat-1 would increase throughput of data from around 5GB to 140GB per second. It would provide more capability and costs would be no different. The deal would result in a need to change techniques in order to get high throughput on the satellite and would require the use of a certain number of gateway communications relays. We don’t think this will happen overnight but there some utility in that.”
   ViaSat said it plans to begin work on its ViaSat-2 satellite by the end of this year and expects a much smoother road to launching the satellite in early 2015. 

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