Podcast: An update on the ViaSat-3 satellite project with Dave Ryan

Viasat’s President of Space Systems talks about how the project differs from previous Viasat satellites


As president of Viasat’s Space and Commercial Networks division, Dave Ryan is overseeing the ViaSat-3 project, which will create a three-satellite constellation of satellites affording global internet coverage. In this episode of the Viasat podcast, we asked Ryan how the project is coming along and touched on a few other topics:

  • How Viasat is designing the entire system in a vertically integrated manner that is expected to result in each satellite having over 1 terabit/sec of capacity.
  • The advantages of using large satellites in geostationary orbit that can provide complete earth coverage with just three satellites.
  • The changing role of satellites and the growing demand for capacity.
  • How the ViaSat-3 constellation’s flexibility will enable it to shift capacity more effectively than any of our other satellites.


Alex Miller: Viasat-1 Hello, welcome to the Viasat in Conversation podcast. I’m Alex Miller with Corporate Communications, and we’re here today with Dave Ryan, president of Viasat Space and Commercial Networks Division. Now, this is a relatively new division that oversees the construction launch and flight of Viasat’s growing fleet of satellites. Dave joined the company in 2016 after many years in the industry. The big news on the space side of our business is the construction of the ViaSat-3 satellites. Now, this is a constellation of very high capacity geostationary satellites that, once in orbit will provide global coverage of high speed internet. So Dave, just to start off, can you give us an update on how the ViaSat-3 project is going?
Dave Ryan: Oh, Alex, I’d love to. It’s a very exciting time in the project because we have gotten to the point where we’ve validated that all of the spacecraft hardware works perfectly with the ground and is doing what the system needs it to do. And now we’re really in the nuts and bolts of making sure that all the units are being built for the satellites and are qualified to be able to survive the space environments.
Alex Miller: That’s great. I know that a lot of this, is you know, proprietary information. Is there any more information you can give us about some of the other more interesting things about these satellites compared to some of our previous ones?
Dave Ryan: Well, one thing that I think people understand is that this is a little bit different for Viasat this time around and that we are building our own satellite payload rather than coming up with the design and having someone else build it. And as part of that, it’s really paying big dividends because we can design and optimize the entire system, not just the satellite, not just the payload that does the the signal processing onboard, but the entire network to optimize for greater capacity and be able to provide things that people haven’t even dreamed of before.
Alex Miller: Wow. Yeah, that’s gonna be a really big advantage there. So, you know, one of the things we hear a lot in the news today is about different types of satellite constellations that are in the works to provide internet coverage. And, most of these are smaller satellites in low or medium Earth orbit constellations. So Viasat focuses on these larger geostationary satellites that are in much higher orbits. And so I just want to ask, why has Viasat mostly put its emphasis on these types of satellites and constellations?
Dave Ryan: Well, you know, each constellation in orbit has its pluses and minuses. And one of the tremendous advantages for geosynchronous orbit is to be able to put a satellite in that orbit that then is stationary over the Earth. And so its speed is basically matched with the spin of the earth, so that when you’re on the ground and you’re looking up at it, it doesn’t appear to be moving. Now, there’s a real advantage of that in that the terminals on the ground can now be a lot less expensive, much simpler. You basically bolt them into a place and point them towards the satellite and then you don’t have to move them again. So that enables us to have much more capacity in those terminals, make them much more flexible and make them much more seamless for all the people that are using, whether they’re on commercial airliners, whether they’re in the government, or whether it’s a satellite dish that’s bolted on the side of someone’s house in a rural area. So I think that others have also looked at geosynchronous for many, many decades and for the most part have put their satellites in those orbits because, quite frankly, you can put more capacity in that’s more persistent for all the reasons that I just said. And with three satellites, you can cover the entire earth. You don’t need tens, hundreds or thousands of satellites to do that. You can make sure that you have no gaps in coverage with just three satellites. So once you do that, you decide, okay, how complicated am I going to make those satellites? Well, generally, we make them a little bigger. We make them so that they last longer. Generally low earth orbit -- they only last for a few years before they have to be replaced because they’re so close to the earth’s atmosphere. They have a tendency to use up their fuel and need to be replaced. In geosynchronous orbit, you can have a satellite up there typically now for about 15 years. And so, quite frankly, the economics work out very well for that. And you only need now three launches to cover the entire earth rather than many more launches with many more satellites to try and cover all the gaps that you would have in coverage at low earth orbit.
Alex Miller: Right. It’s pretty striking when you see an illustration of how three geostationary or geosynchronous satellites can cover the whole Earth compared to, you know, the kind of little portion of Earth that a LEO satellite can, and really shows why it takes so many of them. And then you’ve got to maintain just way more satellites.
Dave Ryan: That’s true. That’s true. Satellite maintenance is a large cost of the operating cost of the system once it’s up there and starting service. So you’re right, maintaining three satellites is generally a whole lot easier, especially when they’re in one place and you don’t have to keep reacquiring them as they go across the sky, as you do with a low earth orbit constellation. But low Earth orbit and medium Earth orbit constellations have some advantages too. That’s just that you have to launch a lot more satellites since they are much closer to the earth to provide the same kind of coverage.
Alex Miller: Right. And it’s also fair to say that Viasat is involved in satellites that are in all of these orbits, so in different ways. So we’re not just a geostationary company.
Dave Ryan: That’s true.
Alex Miller: So, you know, it seems like, you know, talking about these some call new space, all of these other types of constellations coming along, that the satellite industry is changing a fair amount. So I was wondering if you can speak to that change and the role that Viasat plays in it?
Dave Ryan: Well, in a sense it’s almost back to the future for me, because not that many years ago, there were several constellations that were low Earth orbit and a little bit higher constellations that had the dream of being able to provide internet to people around the world. But we found out at that time that it was very hard to do. When you have a smaller satellite, because you’re gonna need to launch more of them on any particular launch vehicle to be able to have a low Earth orbit constellation, you find out that in that smaller space, it’s harder to be able to have enough power to do everything you may need to do to to create a lot of capacity and that they have to be able to communicate to each other or they end up gathering a lot of of signals and user terminal traffic over cities and saturate, whereas over the oceans they’re running basically idle because there’s not as many users obviously in the oceans. And so that’s been one of the things that’s been difficult to balance out the business case for a low Earth orbit kind of constellation. But many have done that and they’re working hard to be successful. Iridium is now launching their next constellation, for example. And we’re very proud to say that we delivered some of the payload electronics for that constellation. So there is definitely a place for low Earth orbit constellations, but they do have a challenge in that if you’re trying to transfer internet traffic in particular or large amounts of data in particular, that usually as you go over cities and go over land masses, you’ll have a tendency to saturate that satellite. And if you have cross links, for example, you can sometimes even out that traffic between the satellites that have a lot of capacity on them and others that are being used up. But that adds complexity to the system.
Alex Miller: All right. Cross links being the ability of the satellites to communicate with one another.
Dave Ryan: Right.
Alex Miller: And, you know, you mentioned capacity and it’s a big word for Viasat. And it’s one of the ways that we’ve disrupted the industry is is creating these satellites that have such greater capacity than the previous ones. What is that that’s driving the need for that much capacity? I think it’s a simple answer, but I just wanted to hear you say it.
Dave Ryan: Well, I think that anybody that’s been using the internet in the last five to 10 years would look back and say, boy, when I first started using it, you know, I had had some some really now comparatively simple things that I was doing with it. And as we had more capacity that enabled us to stream video and be interactive on the internet and use it for virtually every part of our lives, then a lot of the light bulbs are going off that are causing us to think of new applications we never dreamed of in the past that inevitably take more capacity to do. And so it’s safe to say as we go into the future, that’s going to continue. And that is going to continue to be exciting, companies like Viasat are going to be providing exciting platforms. For people to have applications that they’ve never dreamed of in the past. Just the traffic that we see on commercial airliners today, people didn’t think that they could stream video. And now with our system, they can do it effortlessly.
Alex Miller: Right. So, you know, one thing we like to talk about at Viasat is how vertically integrated the company has become. And, you know, as opposed to using multiple contractors for different things, we’re moving more towards providing most of the components and services ourselves. So how does that vertical integration fit in with our space sector and what are the advantages of that?
Dave Ryan: Well, similar to what I had just talked about, we’re - as we go through and we figure out what the best architecture is to provide high speed data, broadband data and internet traffic around the world, it became very obvious to us that the way to do that the most efficiently is to really make sure that we have the design of the satellite be very, very compatible with the design of the ground terminals and very compatible with the ground network. And the more that we integrated that together, the more capacity we could get out of the system. When ViaSat-3 is flying in a few years, it’s going to be at least five times the capacity of what anybody else has flown. And so we’re very excited about that, because that’s that’s been something that has been a vision that Viasat’s had for quite some time. And it continues to be the right answer as we have implemented ViaSat-1, ViaSat-2 and now going to the era of of global communications with ViaSat-3.
Alex Miller: Right. Because, you know, previously, I mean, a lot of satellites even today, they they do many different things. They’ve got you know, you might just lease a portion of it and they may not necessarily be optimized for internet, you know, signal, things like that, whereas our satellites are born and bred for that, essentially.
Dave Ryan: That’s true. That’s true. And one of the key things is to be able to have a system that can be so flexible that you can put capacity down where you want it, when you need it. And so often in the past, that wasn’t the case with other systems, that years before you would launch the satellite, you would have to decide where you think the markets are going to be and purposely design beams to cover those areas. And they were pretty static once once they were launched and put into place, then pretty much the capacity you had planned on years before had to be in those beams, or if it wasn’t then it was wasted. And now with our system, we have total flexibility to not only have total earth coverage, including areas over the ocean for ships, for airplanes, for island states, but also to be able to transfer capacity from some of those beams to other beams as we find out that we’ve got more traffic, let’s say, over a commercial landmass.
Alex Miller: Right. That’s an enormous advantage, especially if you consider, you know, a terrestrial provider that needs to run cable out to someplace and then they decide or they figure out that there isn’t the demand in that area. They’re kind of stuck, whereas with our flexible satellite, you can really move that capacity around to serve.
Dave Ryan: That’s an excellent example. It would be like us having our cables and fiber optics that we can plug in as we need to, and transfer it over to some other place and plug it in over there instantaneously.
Alex Miller: Right. Well, Dave, I know there’s going to be a lot more to talk about as ViaSat-3 gets a little closer to, you know, launch date. That’s coming up, but still a little bit around the corner. But we’ll definitely look forward to catching up with you again on some of these other topics about this part of our company. So thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us today.
Dave Ryan: Oh, thank you. And I really look forward to having another conversation as we get closer to launch.
Alex Miller: All right. Thanks, Dave.