Connecting ViaSat-3’s Invisible Link to Earth

A stronger internet connection from space relies on an intricately built ground network

ViaSat-3 ground network
Getty Images

When ViaSat-3 Americas launches, all eyes will be on the sky, but while the satellite payload steals the show, the vast but mostly invisible ground network is the foundation of its success. Without it, a satellite would be merely a lonesome piece of space hardware.

The ground network plays the vital role of accepting signals from the satellite and managing traffic to and from the internet. It’s made up of a collection of earth stations, also known as gateways or satellite access nodes (SANs) connected to the internet by fiber optic cable. Antennas at each of the SAN sites serve as the connection between the user and the internet.

Viasat SAN site with antenna
Viasat SAN site with antenna

Establishing a ground network takes a lot of planning, which started with the ViaSat-3 program team — a cross-functional group covering multiple aspects of satellite and ground network design. Viasat’s senior director of global development Travis Golliver joined the group’s efforts in January 2016.

Today, after extensive design, development, and testing, Golliver said the system is set for its connection to the satellite.

“We are excited,” he said. “Although we’re continuing to do alpha testing, the ground network is ready for the impending satellite launch.”

This isn’t Golliver’s first SANs rodeo. He and his team also helped establish the ground networks for ViaSat-1 and ViaSat-2, both vastly different from that of ViaSat-3 Americas — and they are supporting the teams overseas for the other two satellites in the ViaSat-3 global constellation.

ViaSat-3 EMEA will cover Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and ViaSat-3 APAC will cover the Asia-Pacific regions.

“Each ground network is unique to each new generation satellite,” he said. “We continue to upgrade and enhance the satellite technology, which requires changes and new technology on the ground.”

SANs are strategically placed to maximize the capacity and availability of the satellite. Each SAN includes a compact Ka-band satellite antenna and all the other elements needed to transmit and receive signals to and from the satellite.

Modern day prospectors

Creation of the ground network starts with Viasat’s satellite design team, who tell Golliver’s team where SANs will be needed and how many will be required.

“For ViaSat-3 Americas, we need many more SANs than for our previous satellites — a lot more. With ViaSat-1, the ground network included 17 SANs, and with ViaSat-2, the company built 42 such sites. With ViaSat-3, that number is in the hundreds,” states Golliver.

That’s because with each satellite, Viasat has drastically reduced the size and cost of its ground stations, while increasing the number of SAN sites and each site’s performance. Because the SAN sites are smaller, Viasat also decreased the amount of land it needs for each one.

Powerful, yet small and compact, today’s SAN footprint is about 300 square feet, or the size of a one-car garage. An original ViaSat-1 site was about a half-acre, or roughly the size of 73 one-car garages.

While the sites are small, the challenge for Golliver’s team was to find and lease land for those hundreds of ViaSat-3 Americas sites.

“It wasn’t just the number of leases, but the number of conversations the team had to have with so many different landowners,” he said. “In addition to the pure volume of sites, many of these locations were remote, sometimes two to three hours or more away from any metropolitan area. On prior programs, we would negotiate deals with large telecommunications companies or teleports in which one agreement would support many SANs. For the Viasat-3 network, we found ourselves negotiating many more individual leases with rural landowners.”

Teleports provide interconnections between different forms of telecommunications, especially those that link satellites to ground-based communications.

“In many of these instances, we were knocking on the door of a farmer or rural homeowner, and saying, ‘We’d like to lease a corner of your land to support our ViaSat-3 Satellite program,’” Golliver said. “Working with individuals not versed in our business takes more communication and time,” he said.

Viasat had to meet regulatory and environmental requirements like those for ViaSat-1 and 2, but on a much greater scale.

“Even though the sites are smaller, you have to check all the same boxes as required for larger teleport sites,” Golliver said. “Each ViaSat-3 Americas site generally requires a unique land lease, construction permit and upon completion must comply with both NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) and FCC (Federal Communications Commission) licensing rules and regulations.”

Then repeat — hundreds of times.

Overlapping this process, Golliver’s U.S. team has supported overseas company employees as they secure sites in Europe and Australia for ViaSat-3 EMEA and ViaSat-3 APAC.

“Flight-2 (EMEA) SANs are located throughout European countries and the team there is working hard to prepare for a satellite launch later this year” Golliver said. “Construction is under way, and our European teammates are beginning to ramp up installation of the equipment.”

“The SANs for flight 3 APAC are already started and being built. It’s all coming together after many years of hard work and planning.”

More work ahead

The Viasat team’s next challenge comes after the satellite reaches its orbital slot. ViaSat-3 Americas is a complex satellite that will require significant testing and verification with the ground network. Although the team has been performing testing and qualifications on the ground network for years – final testing and acceptance can’t begin until the two are linked.

Once all those tests have been passed, both the satellite and ground network can begin doing the work for which they were designed — providing customers with high-speed internet.

Looking back on the development of ViaSat-3 Americas, and the events that occurred during that time, Golliver is particularly proud of the work the entire Viasat-3 program team has done.

“We went through a pandemic and a lockdown,” he said. “We had to do a lot of our work by Zoom. We’ve faced many challenges none of us could have imagined.

“All of this takes vast teamwork and involves every office. All the folks in Europe, Australia, America — it is the entire company, working together and building in anticipation of these launches. If you look at what was thrown in front of us, what we’ve accomplished together is pretty amazing.”