A look at how satellite innovation is leading to real global coverage
Despite great strides over the past few decades in what communications satellites could do and the coverage they provided, they were mostly low-powered. For broadband connectivity at the dawn of the streaming revolution, they lacked the capacity needed to manage that data-heavy world that was right around the corner.
As the demand for data grew, existing satellites simply couldn’t keep up. Viasat stepped into this gap with ViaSat-1, launched in 2011. At launch, the satellite had more capacity than all the other communications satellites over North America combined. ViaSat-1 disrupted the satellite broadband industry model while providing a real option to close those internet gaps.
In short, Viasat upended the existing model by focusing not just on coverage, but capacity — the ability to manage gigabytes of data instead of kilobytes or megabytes.
How did we get here, and what’s next?
A radical idea
Until 1945, the idea of sending radio messages into space and around the world was the stuff of science fiction. In October of that year, writer Arthur C. Clarke described a very real way to do deliver communication via satellite in an article for a magazine called Wireless World.
Clarke drew on German rocket science from World War II and his own imagination to sketch out what we’d describe today as a global satellite constellation, except that his vision included space stations with people in them managing the operations.
His biggest contribution may have been to propose putting his stations into particular orbit (later known as a geostationary orbit). At the right altitude (22,236 miles), and the right speed (7,000 mph), Clarke’s stations would orbit at the same rate as the Earth’s rotation, allowing them to remain essentially stationary over the same spots on the earth. Any signal sent down from the station would hit its target 24 hours a day. TV shows wouldn’t be interrupted by a satellite flying to the other side of the world — or “setting” as the earth rotated.
Soviet scientists made things more real in 1957, when they launched Sputnik, a silver orb the size of a beach ball that orbited the earth for three months. A radio transmitter on board sent pinging sounds down to the Earth that even amateur radio owners could hear.
Fearing Soviet domination of space, the U.S. government pressed hard to catch up. The next year, 1958, they launched a small satellite called SCORE into space aboard an Atlas ballistic missile. They kept it secret, fearing failure, until the satellite reached orbit and transmitted a taped Christmas message from President Dwight Eisenhower to everyone in the world.
Telstar I, the real deal
The first communications satellite with solar panels that could recharge its batteries, Courier 1B, went into orbit in 1960. The real game changer, though, was Telstar 1, launched in 1962.
Owned by AT&T and launched by NASA, Telstar 1 could relay telephone and television signals across the Northern Hemisphere. One of the first signals to reach Europe was a snippet of a baseball game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Chicago Cubs.
The game changed again in 1965 when COMSAT, a private company backed by the U.S. government, launched Intelsat I into geosynchronous orbit. Nicknamed Early Bird, the 76-pound cylinder satellite was wrapped in solar cells, making it look like a rocket-powered table lamp with the nozzle as its base.
Early Bird was supposed to last just 18 months. It operated for four years, sending telephone, television and even facsimile signals down to Earth, until 1969, when it was deactivated.
Large countries with rugged terrain were among the first to embrace satellite technology. Russia created a nationwide television broadcast system called Orbita in 1967. Canada commissioned Hughes Aircraft to build a series of satellites called Anik. The first three, launched between 1972 and 1975, let Canada broadcast to its far, frozen north. The satellite network could carry 12 color TV stations, a feat at the time.
The military goes into orbit
While commercial firms chased space for telephone and TV, the U.S. military wanted it for winning wars. After Sputnik, President Dwight Eisenhower created what would come to be known as DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It created a network of satellites that could beam military messages around the world, securely.
The first DARPA satellite went up in 1966, and the system was turned on two years later. Civilians reaped the benefits when DARPA allowed use of a key feature: the Global Positioning System. GPS was originally reserved for use by the military. Then, in 1983, Korean Airlines flight 007 strayed into Soviet airspace and was shot down. President Ronald Reagan made the system public thereafter to help pilots avoid disaster. The military kept the most accurate signals for itself until 2000, when President Bill Clinton made those public.
Today, the network of 31 satellites is run by the U.S. Air Force. GPS runs most every map application in the world. Each satellite beams its location down to earth, where smartphones triangulate two or more satellites to determine its own location.
Internet via satellite
In 1986, Viasat got started and by the end of the Company’s first year had secured $300,000 in venture capital. Viasat’s founding trio — Mark Dankberg, Steve Hart and Mark Miller — started their work with satellites from the ground up, starting with tiny microprocessors on circuit boards for the U.S. government. In fact, the U.S. Department of Defense was an early customer, buying modems for their satellite networks.
From the beginning, Viasat saw the value of relaying data around the globe from space. AT&T and other companies had long used satellites to fill gaps in international coverage for their phone systems. Mostly, though, they relied on undersea fiber-optic cables. When the internet blossomed in the mid-1990s, clogging phone lines, AT&T and other telecom providers warmed to the idea of using networks of satellites.
The idea was ahead of its time. AT&T never got its system off the ground. A company called Teledesic tried to build a network of more than 200 satellites in orbits close to the earth, and failed. Iridium, while its initial constellation didn’t work out, later recovered. (In fact, Viasat supplied some of the equipment for its revamped satellite constellation.)
Today, there are two big players in North America offering satellite internet: Hughesnet and Viasat. Hughesnet parent company, EchoStar, got into the business by buying Hughes Communications in 2011. (Recently, most of Hughesnet has been sold to Dish Network.) Hughes started as a circuit-board maker in 1971, then later became a satellite service provider.
Viasat has an evolving story — one that started creating satellite components, and which has expanded greatly to include launching and operating its own growing fleet of satellites.
Understanding Viasat’s growth path and role in the satellite internet ecosystem
In-house research & development and strategic acquisitions have made Viasat a bigger player every year. In 2000, the Company bought a unit of Scientific-Atlanta that made the ground antennas that connect to satellites. Soon after, Viasat started working with Boeing on internet access for airliners, and it won a contract to build residential modems for WildBlue Communications, a Denver-based satellite internet provider.
Viasat bought WildBlue in 2009, taking on its 400,000 U.S. subscribers and satellite network, and gaining critical expertise in managing a residential network. Viasat had bigger aspirations for the network, though, with plans already in the works to launch ViaSat-1 — a satellite with vastly more capacity than anything else in space. It was the opposite of what Viasat’s leaders saw in the industry: companies operating a larger number of low-capacity satellites that sold the bandwidth at a premium.
As ViaSat-1 disrupted high-priced low-capacity model by showering North America in bandwidth, Viasat doubled down on the technology with the service launch of ViaSat-2 in 2018. This satellite has 7 times the geographic coverage and nearly double the capacity of its predecessor. It covers most of the U.S. and Canada, Mexico and Central America and the Caribbean, plus the majority of air and maritime routes across the Atlantic Ocean.
The additional coverage and capacity also opens new markets and opportunities. In Mexico, for example, the ViaSat-2 satellite powers a newer model of delivering broadband to unserved and underserved areas. The Community Wi-Fi service allows residents in areas to access the internet via a shared signal, with the satellite antenna and Wi-Fi equipment placed in a central location (like a store). The service is then offered at an affordable price, with an hour online typically costing less than $1. This kind of model, which helps connect the unconnected while also being viable from a business standpoint, is part of the reason Viasat was added to the 2019 Fortune Change the World list.
A global constellation
In 2021, Viasat plans to launch the first of three new satellites with even higher capacity. Also strategically placed in geostationary orbits — the ViaSat-3 constellation will be able to beam bandwidth to virtually anywhere on the globe. With this constellation, Viasat aims to be the first global internet service provider.
For capacity, each of the ViaSat-3 satellites is expected to deliver more than 1,000 gigabits per second — 1 terabit or more. This represents an enormous jump in broadband capacity layered atop worldwide coverage. It will go a long way toward helping connect the billions of people still unconnected while opening up additional markets and opportunities on a tremendous scale.
Thinking back to Arthur C. Clarke’s original notion of three satellites able to cover the entire Earth, it’s no exaggeration to say the science fiction writer’s dream is becoming reality.