The Viasat of today might be best known for its internet service, but the company started out providing products and services to the U.S. Government. The defense products it has created over the decades have earned it prestige among defense contractors.
“In the industry, we are feared by our competitors and respected by our customers,” said Marc Agnew, a 33-year employee and current chief technical officer for Viasat’s Fixed Broadband business in Europe. “That doesn’t have the splash with investors, and it isn’t necessarily appreciated by people on the outside. But it’s a story we have to tell.”
It’s a story not only of financial success, but of a young startup whose employees created innovative products that often didn’t follow the original blueprint, but kept end-user (often military personnel) needs in mind. Time and again, those products proved successful, building relationships and earning Viasat many more contracts – along with its reputation as a trusted partner in the defense industry it maintains to this day.
Viasat gained a toehold in government work the old-fashioned way: through hard work. In its early days, the company was a regular participant in Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) programs. These highly competitive projects encouraged small businesses to engage in federal research and development, with the potential for commercialization. The goal was not only to help the government but to encourage high-tech innovation – a concept Viasat took to heart.
Before starting the company in 1986, founders Mark Dankberg, Mark Miller, and Steve Hart had previously worked in the defense sector at San Diego satellite telecommunications manufacturer Linkabit, so government work was already familiar to them. The challenge was gaining business and a reputation for the new company.
Paul Baca, Viasat’s Chief Operating Officer for Government Systems, is a 29-year company employee who remembers those early projects.
“The government would issue a book with innovation ideas to industry twice a year,” he said. “We would go through them, come up with innovative ideas, submit proposals, and always land three to five contracts every cycle,” he said. “They were small contracts – $75,000 to $100,000 – but we would consistently win. That was really what kept the company going in the very early days.”
Jerry Goodwin, now Vice President of Enterprise and Land Mobility, spent 29 years working in Viasat’s Government Systems business. He said Viasat performed so well it was held up as an example of success under the SBIR program.
“The association used to ask us to present at SBIR conferences to help other small businesses understand what they needed to do,” he said. “At one time, 70 to 80 percent of our business was related to the SBIR program. It was really where we got a substantial amount of our revenue early on.”
Through SBIR projects, Viasat’s early engineers created several groundbreaking products that helped the fledgling company find its wings. Some of them remain in the company’s active product portfolio today.
One of the earliest was the UHF DAMA (Demand Assigned Multiple Access) modem, developed for the Navy in 1992. The modem allowed the Navy to use radios and communicate via satellites globally in any kind of weather. But while the government expected such functionality would require a new and physically bulky system, Viasat – working through an SBIR contract – showed that it could be done with an existing radio and a Viasat modem housed in a small box.
“We didn’t build what they’d told us to build,” Baca said. “We knew the problem to be solved was to connect these satellites. We knew they had radios that worked. They just didn’t have the ability to connect to the satellite. So, we just added the modem that allowed these radios to communicate with the satellites. We were able to build a little box, marry it up to an existing radio, and make it work.
“It was smaller, brought to market faster, and had more capability (than other solutions).”
The smaller size saved space, reduced weight, and could be used in airborne, maritime, or fixed installations. Nevertheless, the U.S. government was not first in line for the UHF DAMA modem, initially pursuing an alternative solution. Instead, Viasat successfully marketed it to allies including the U.K., Australia, and Italy.
“These countries bought them because it was a very inexpensive solution,” Baca said, adding the U.S. eventually followed suit.
In 1995, Viasat introduced another breakthrough product – the first Advanced Data Controller. Its purpose is to pass data over encrypted, portable radios originally developed for voice. Instead of just using the radios to talk, the military wanted to connect them to a small computer and send data.
“For front-line special operators who need to communicate back, doing it digitally is much more accurate, much less threatening, and quieter than trying to communicate with voice,” Baca said.
The government wanted a controller that could flawlessly pass a large file in 30 seconds or less. A total of 10 companies were selected to demonstrate their proposed solutions. Viasat engineers worked day and night for weeks reprogramming the hardware used in its UHF DAMA modem. When Viasat conducted its demonstration for the government, its advanced data controller transmitted the file in just 12 seconds.
The controller gained a strong and loyal following. While the first customers were U.S. special operations forces, it eventually was adopted by other branches. Viasat also significantly reduced its bulk over the years, dropping it to a credit card-sized device that could be inserted into a laptop and connected via cable to the radio. Eventually, Viasat created a software-only version.
“We didn’t know how big it was going to be,” Agnew said. “I think it goes to show that, when you do something that solves a customer’s problem really, really well, they come to rely on it. For a long time, customers I talked to didn’t call it the data controller – they called it ‘The Viasat.’ Everyone knew it was a Viasat product.”
Link 16 tactical data links
In 1996, Viasat developed another revolutionary product: the first Link-16 prototype tactical data link terminal. It was the first step in the development of a series of Link 16-related products.
Link 16 is a military network designed to give warfighters secure, anti-jam, line-of-sight communications, using data encryption and frequency-hopping to maintain secure communications. With it, today’s military aircraft, ships, and ground forces can share their tactical picture in near-real time, exchange text messages and images, and access digital voice.
While the first Link 16 tactical data link network was introduced in the 1970s, Viasat dramatically advanced the technology and its usability. “We developed these very small data-link terminals that have effectively increased the government’s capability,” Baca said.
Among Viasat’s latest Link 16 innovations are the 16-pound Small Tactical Terminals (STTs). These are used primarily on Apache helicopters, as well as on other air, land and maritime platforms (e.g. Harrier, V-22, Coast Guard Cutter, and USMC MRZR) to deliver simultaneous voice and data communications.
Viasat also developed the handheld Link 16 radio, also known as BATS-D (Battlefield Awareness and Targeting System Dismounted).
“That completely changed the game for the government,” Baca said. “Special-ops people who are out in the middle of the desert, or out trying to be unseen and unheard while needing to communicate to tactical aircraft, now can use the BATS-D radio to digitally send data and control tactical targeting. It allows them to do something only a huge system could previously do, all from a handheld device.”
BATS-D’s ability to track users is another important benefit.
“It has practically helped eliminate fratricide,” Baca said. “Providing the exact location of people on the ground up to those aircraft saves a lot of lives and makes operations much more precise.”
Today, Viasat is helping take Link-16’s trusted network to new capabilities through the development of the first Link-16 enabled low-Earth orbit satellite. The satellite is being developed as part of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s XVI program, which Viasat is leading.
In 1998, Viasat introduced the Viasat IP Crypto device, enabling the U.S. Government to send top-secret information over the internet instead of creating a designated network.
“We went to the government with an idea, and developed some basic technology on an SBIR,” Baca said. “We said, ‘You don’t have to have your own special network across the world for the DoD (Department of Defense). You can use the commercial internet with this encryption device.’”
The company has since developed numerous encryption products, including the KG-250 network encryptor. Certified by the National Security Agency in 2004, the KG-250 is a rugged, flexible, small, lightweight device that protects government information at top-secret level for tactical and mobile use.
The KG-250 combined a router and an encryptor, and was, Goodwin said, “an idea that didn’t exist at the time.”
“It was way faster and way cheaper than anything else out there,” he said. “I had competitors screaming at me about us ruining the market. We really did disrupt the market with that first generation of the product. Now we have both the smallest, lowest-power product that’s also the highest-speed, most-powerful on a data throughput basis.
Goodwin said Viasat grew its encryption business from no products to having dozens, becoming among the largest provider of high-grade crypto products in the country.
More affordable bandwidth
A major Viasat product expected to transform government communications is the company’s fleet of satellites. Because Viasat’s satellites have such high capacity, the government can buy bandwidth as it needs it, and not pay for constant access.
“The government spends millions of dollars on capacity leases, whether they use it or not,” Goodwin said. “With ViaSat-3, the intent is to enable the government to be able to buy by the drink and get better service than the competing alternatives. It could save a lot of money. We can also manage that service and provide security.”
Baca credits Viasat’s work culture for making it a uniquely qualified government partner.
“We always were out-of-the-box from a government perspective,” he said. “Most government business is chasing formal requests for proposals. I think we, encouraged by CEO Mark Dankberg, were always thinking about what the customer really needs and trying to create that. Not what the RFP asked for, but what the customer actually wanted.”
The products and solutions Viasat has developed have made the military not only more efficient, but safer.
“It saves lives,” Baca said. “It reduces the number of people who need to actually face adversaries. Our technology helps keep the military connected, helps them assimilate data, analyze it, and make decisions in a way they never could in the past.”