Viasat is seeking to create hybrid narrowband direct-to-smartphone services using satellites in geostationary and non-geostationary orbits according to its CEO, Mark Dankberg, who spoke at the SmallSat Symposium in California on Feb. 8.
Viasat is open to partnering with low Earth orbit companies, including rival SpaceX. The acquisition of Inmarsat is still awaiting regulatory approval, and Viasat is focusing on improving payload integration to save space by looking at standardized cubesat-type form factors to allow new entrants into these systems.
Advances in technology are making it easier to communicate from orbit without large antennas or specialized phones, and direct-to-smartphone capabilities are becoming increasingly compelling. However, Viasat is aware of the potential negative impact of having any cell phone or smartwatch in the world connect directly to a space system, which is not consistent with the self-interest of many nations.
As direct-to-smartphone efforts pick up, it is likely to have knock-on effects across the rest of the space industry, including putting more mass into orbit, increasing the threat of collisions that could threaten the viability of space operations for all operators.
Dankberg told the SmallSat Symposium that while Viasat made its multi-billion dollar offer for Inmarsat because of its international broadband presence, its direct-to-smartphone narrowband capabilities are increasingly compelling.
He said “one of the biggest potential markets is direct-to-device,” which is “going to have a big influence, both positive and negative when it comes to … the self-interest of nations.”
Advances in technology and telecom protocol standardization are making it easier to communicate to and from orbit without large antennas or specialized phones.
“It’s possible to control that,” Dankberg said, “but when any cell phone in the world, or smartwatch … within your borders can connect to a space system directly, that is not consistent with the self-interest of quite a few nations in the world.”
Small LEO satellites have been getting larger to improve their capabilities as launch economics improve, Dankberg noted.
He pointed to how SpaceX’s Starlink broadband satellites have increased from about 250 kilograms to the 2,000-kilogram range to add new capabilities, such as direct-to-smartphone services, into its second-generation broadband constellation.
Viasat believes “you do not need very large satellites to accomplish missions in space,” Dankberg said, and is focusing on improving payload integration to save space.
“We’re looking at standardized cubesat-type form factors that we think we can buy that will create a vibrant ecosystem,” he added, “to allow many new entrants into these into these systems.”
Viasat is still waiting on regulatory approvals from the United Kingdom and European to buy Inmarsat after announcing the deal in November 2021.
The statuary deadline for the U.K.’s competition watchdog to decide on the deal is March 30, Raymond James analyst Ric Prentiss said in a recent investor note, and “then the last remaining hurdle would be the European Commission which could potentially elongate the timeline.”
Viasat, which recently completed the $2 billion sale of its tactical data communications business, reported $651 million in revenue from continuing operations in the three months to the end of December, up 4% year-on-year.
Adjusted EBITDA, or earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, declined 15% to $139 million.
The operator also disclosed an extra few weeks of delays for its debut next-generation ViaSat-3 satellite, designed to add significant amounts of capacity over the Americas, which is now slated for a SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch in the week of April 8.
The second ViaSat-3, covering Europe, Middle East, and Africa, is counting down to a September launch on one of United Launch Alliance’s last Atlas launches.