For the future’s connected cities, satellite is a key part of the mix

It will take a mix of technologies to realize the advantages connectivity can bring


When it was time to upgrade its streetlights to energy-saving LEDs, the city of San Diego decided to go a whole lot further.

Along with new bulbs, San Diego is in the midst of installing 4,200 digital sensors on light posts across the city. They will gather data on temperature, barometric pressure, and humidity. They will also monitor the movement of people and cars. Someday soon, San Diego expects to use the system to direct drivers to open parking spots.

The project is one of many around the world aimed at making cities smart. In this example, the sensors are only the beginning. To be useful, the data from the light posts must be available to pedestrians and drivers. That connection is key, and Viasat’s leaders see satellite as part of the critical link between the smart city and its people.

Satellite has a number of advantages for serving cities. For one, the systems can remain operational during disasters that destroy land-based systems, like tsunamis, fires, and hurricanes. They also have global reach. ViaSat-3, a constellation of three satellites, will cover six continents and part of Antarctica. The first is scheduled for launch in 2021.

Being global is key when it comes to serving cities, because the fastest-growing ones aren’t in North America or Europe. Most are in Africa, according to the United Nations, led by Zinder in southern Niger, which is expected to grow 67.6 percent between 2016 and 2025, and Bujumbura, Burundi, which is projected to swell by 67.4 percent.


Urbanization is a worldwide trend. As of 2018, 55 percent of the world’s population lived in cities, according to the United Nations. By 2050, that figure will rise to 68 percent, driven by growth in megacities. The United Nations defines a megacity as any urban area with 10 million people or more. The biggest is Tokyo with 38 million, followed by Jakarta at 30 million. Of the 31 megacities that existed in 2016, 16 were in Asia, and all but Tokyo are expected to grow.

These cities need an electronic nervous system like San Diego’s not just for convenience. They need one to keep delivering basic services, especially transportation. As a whole, the world will have to add 15 million miles of paved roads and 30,000 square miles of parking spaces by 2050 to meet demand, according to the International Energy Agency, a research organization based in Paris. Doing that will be expensive, and it will produce vast amounts of carbon pollution, making it impossible to meet international goals of keeping global average temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius, the IEA says.

The forecast for garbage removal is just as dire. Global waste production is likely to rise 70 percent to 3.4 billion metric tons by 2050 from 2.01 billion today, according to the World Bank. And removing trash is expensive. Cities spend between 15 percent and 20 percent of their budgets on solid waste removal today, according to networking company Cisco Systems.


Using tech to do more with less

For many city leaders and urban planners, the solution to better management of traffic, trash, and pollution lies in the cloud, where computing power can ease the burden by doing more with less. On trash, for example, tiny sensors can tell sanitation departments when garbage cans and dumpsters are full. The result: fewer overflowing cans. Better yet, trash companies don’t have to waste fuel and create pollution by running trucks to empty or half-full bins.

These “smart dumpsters” are part of the Internet of Things, a general term for any appliance (e.g. tool, truck, car or streetlamp) that connects to the web with small, inexpensive semiconductors that collect data and broadcast it to a network. Viasat expects connected cars, airplanes, and even trash cans to send more data along its satellite network with every passing year. As cities get larger, IoT type data will be one of the things that keep them habitable.

Viasat has been working with Bentley to enable Wi-Fi signals in cars using our advanced Wi-Fi technology. The ability to provide uninterrupted mobile coverage is key to the connected car and the connected city. As with many new technologies, what we see in higher-end vehicles is likely to migrate to other segments as these systems evolve.

Satellite faces challenges in cities, where tall buildings can block signals, says Roger Lanctot, an analyst at Strategy Analytics who studies the auto industry, but combining technologies can equate to more reliability. Satellite’s higher latency means it’s not ideal for real-time connectivity but useful in other ways. In cities, the best solution may be a hybrid cellular-satellite system, he says. Smart cities get smarter when they have more nitty-gritting data about the movement of people, cars, and goods, and satellite can help gather it.

“Satellite can be helpful in getting more granularity of information,” Lanctot says.

A satellite system can also saturate a city with bandwidth, says Nirmal Velayudhan, senior director of advanced projects at Viasat. That means information about traffic, pollution, weather and emergencies can reach all citizens at once.

“We can provide large amounts of bandwidth to a given location with minimal infrastructure, Velayudhan says. “With that, you can multi-cast to a whole city.”

Emergency communications

And satellite is indispensable for first responders. During Superstorm Sandy, soldiers in the New Jersey National Guard used Viasat’s service for critical communications. Viasat also sent satellite terminals to Red Cross camps so that displaced citizens could contact family members.

Urbanization is putting more people at risk, according to the U.N. because many of the biggest, fastest-growing cities are on the coasts, where hurricanes, tsunamis and rising seas threaten lives. Others are in seismic areas. Their need for constant communication during disasters is acute now, and it’s growing. Satellite has proven reliability. Viasat provided pro-bono satellite services to several U.S. Navy bases after Hurricanes Irma and Harvey knocked out regular communications for days, and weeks in the case of Key West. In 2017, the company was there to help after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico.

In another disaster involving a collapsed dam in Brazil, Viasat teamed up with partner, Telebras — a Brazilian state-controlled public telecommunications company — to quickly stand up satellite terminals to give first responders on-site internet service.

For everyday connectivity, many city leaders see sensors, data, and communication as the keys to keeping cities livable. Chicago is building what it calls its “Array of Things.” Like the San Diego system, Chicago plans to use a network of sensors mounted on streetlight poles to gather data on temperature, pressure, light, carbon monoxide, and ambient sound. City leaders hope the information can be used to alert pedestrians when pollution levels rise in one part of the city or another, and to time streetlights to ease traffic flow.

The Chicago project is a product of big science. It’s funded by a $3.1 million grant from the National Sciences Foundation. Among the partners is the Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois, where much of the work on the Manhattan Project was done. Viasat is well versed in science of this caliber. The company got its start making modems for Defense Department satellites. Today, about half of its revenue comes from government contracts.

Consistent connections

To interact with a smart city, people and vehicles will need reliable broadband connections —even when on the move. Viasat has great depth in understanding how to create consistent connections on the move, as one of its fastest-growing businesses is supplying in-flight internet. Right now, there are more than 1,300 commercial aircraft equipped with Viasat antennas that provide fast, reliable service.

But switching to the ground, and with cars in particular, the challenge is that the antennas will have to be small, light in weight and inexpensive. At its labs in Lausanne, Switzerland, Viasat is working on one to fit the bill. It uses a technology called phased array. Existing antennas must point directly at satellites to send and receive signals. On a house, that doesn’t matter, because the house doesn’t move, and Viasat’s satellites are in geostationary orbit, meaning they are able to always point at the same spot on the ground.

On an airplane, ship, or other vehicle, antennas must turn to stay oriented toward the satellite that serves them. Today, that requires turntables and motors — by necessity a fairly large antenna. A flat-panel phased-array antenna replaces that mechanical hardware with electronics. The surface looks like a pattern of metallic patches. These radiators are steered by microprocessors, not motors, and the radiators are able to stay in constant contact with the satellite without the antenna itself moving. (This video helps illustrate how it works.)

Because they are solid state, like computer microprocessors, phased-array antennas are expected to shrink in size as their electronics evolve, just as microprocessors have. But they are already in use: SES Networks, a Luxembourg-based satellite-communications company, plans to use Viasat’s phased-array antennas in its O3B global network.

“A lot of people didn’t believe much in phased array until now,” says Maria Carolina Vigano, Ph.D., one of three Viasat employees in Switzerland who patented a phased-array antenna in 2015. “Now we’ve got a lot of believers.”

Viasat has cars driving the roads around its headquarters in Carlsbad, California, testing phased-array antennas. The trial is yielding useful data, says Viasat chief technology officer Girish Chandran. Such an antenna would be useful in smart cities, and when residents venture into the rural areas around them where land-based wireless service is spotty.

Chandran says ultimately it’ll be a variety of connectivity technologies that comprise all the pieces of the puzzle: satellite, LTE, 5G, fixed wireless and even lidar  which uses pulses of light to do things like detect objects or gauge the distance between two cars.

Combatting congestion

The potential payoff from having cities connected to cars in real time is huge. Inrix, a Kirkland, Washington-based company that provides transportation data and analytics to automakers, cities, and transportation departments worldwide, says traffic congestion cost U.S. commuters $305 billion in lost time and wasted fuel in 2017. More cars mean more pollution and more money spent on fixing roads and bridges.


The most congested city in the world is Mumbai, according to navigation company TomTom International. On average there, traffic makes commutes 65 percent longer than they would be on clear roads. The most congested U.S. city is Los Angeles at 41 percent.

Building more roads and parking lots is one solution, but it’s an expensive one. Planners in Oregon and Washington have spent $140 million just on studying a new bridge over the Columbia River, which forms their border, since 2004. Despite that expense, the project stalled amid concern that a new bridge would just funnel more traffic into bottlenecks elsewhere.

“Simply building more roads is as likely to exacerbate the issues as alleviate them,” analysts at consulting firm Deloitte wrote in July, 2019. “With constrained budgets and finite space, cities must figure out how to enable greater throughput — moving more people and goods through either the existing transportation system or by adding additional capacity (without creating more traffic) — across the entire transportation system.”

Deloitte proposes that cities build “mobility operating systems,” through which they control traffic by managing all forms of transportation. Citizens could log into a central platform, scan a map, plan a trip, and buy the necessary tickets. The result may be a subway ride, a bus, a shared car, or an electric scooter. Helsinki, Paris, Los Angeles and Singapore are all experimenting with this “mobility-as-a-service,” Deloitte says.

Entrepreneurs see opportunity here too, and many are trying to tackle one of cities’ worst plagues: parking. About 30 percent of all congestion in cities is the result of drivers circling block after block in search of parking spaces, according to the Intelligent Transportation Society of America in Washington D.C. ParkingPanda, a Baltimore software company, works with parking lots and garages to put their inventory online and advertise it in real time. The system is available in 40 cities, including San Francisco, Denver, and Toronto.

To cut down on parking hunts and congestion in general, cities must decrease commuting by car. In 2016, 76 percent of Americans drove to work alone every work day, according to federal data analyzed by the Brookings Institution. The broad effort to do this is called Transportation Demand Management (TDM), a term coined during the 1973 Arab oil embargo, when global gas prices jumped 400 percent. Back then, TDM was about saving money at the pump. Now it’s about saving the planet from the effects of climate change.


RideAmigos, a startup in Santa Monica, California, is trying to cut cars out of commuting by connecting people in carpools. The company’s cloud-based software connects people going the same way at the same time. Carpoolers can use the system to communicate and to find the best routes on a given day based on RideAmigo’s artificial intelligence.

The biggest change in urban commuting may come from autonomous cars, experts say. With onboard computers and a constant internet connection, they may be able to navigate New York and even London with greater efficiency than a human driver, saving time and fuel.

But right now, even the most advanced cars don’t connect to the internet for very much except software upgrades and entertainment, like music over cellular or satellite systems. They do, however, generate data by the gigabyte from all their sensors, cameras and sonar. Autonomous cars will generate even more, according to Intel Corp. The computer chip maker says they will gather 4,000 gigabytes a day. That information becomes useful if you can get it out of the car. Get it in real time and it can decrease travel time and increase safety. If one car encountered snow and slick roads downtown, say, others might reroute to avoid it.

In some cities, that valuable data will be communicated via cellular systems. In others, it will be a combination of cellular and satellite. A “network of networks” will serve the biggest cities in the future. In the more far-flung megapolises, in central Africa, say, it may be satellite alone. And with new phased-array antennas on cars and lampposts, satellite could be a strong viable option in a world to help provide critical information and data to help an ever-increasing population better realize how to get from Point A to Point B in a safe and timely fashion.