New Space and Tech

Viasat Prepares for Arctic Satellite Broadband Amidst Competition from SpaceX, OneWeb

By Elizabeth Howell
July 12, 2023
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Viasat Prepares for Arctic Satellite Broadband Amidst Competition from SpaceX, OneWeb
Satellite dishes at an industrial site in the Arctic.
Image credit: Shutterstock / Andrei Stepanov

Satellite communications provider Viasat Inc. is moving ahead with two satellites aiming to provide broadband service to the Arctic.

In a recent release, Viasat said it has completed thermal vacuum testing on the twin satellites of the Arctic Satellite Broadband Mission that will be managed by Space Norway Heosat. The satellites are expected to be launched in 2024 in an oval-shaped polar orbit so that each satellite will spend more time over the north and south poles.

Viasat officials stated that their satellite payloads are meant to extend existing services by Global Xpress, another satellite broadband provider that came to the company via an acquisition of Inmarsat. The two Arctic satellites will be the first of the Global XPress series to not be situated in geostationary orbits.

“Arctic connectivity is urgent because it supports scientific research, enables new trade routes, and underpins strategic government action in a new geopolitical landscape,” Viasat president Guru Gowrappan said in the news release.

The “geopoliticial” discussion is likely meant to be a reference to a couple of items — that the Arctic is warming (making it attractive for more exploration by other nations) and the fact that Russian relations have soured since the country’s unsanctioned invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Notably, the new mission will not only enhance Arctic consumer and business broadband, which is currently limited in terms of both speed and capacity, but it will also include defense payloads for the US Space Force and the Norwegian Ministry of Defense. Last year, a Space Force statement said the mission will be crucial for “protected satellite communications to the warfighter in the increasingly important Arctic region.”

The Arctic is a ripe proving ground for satellite companies interested in providing broadband access to communities traditionally lacking in those services, especially Indigenous communities that have historically been underserved. Of course, Viasat is not the only firm that is interested in remote access, and it faces steep competition from other companies aiming for that area — most especially SpaceX.

SpaceX’s Starlink constellation has nearly 4,400 operational satellites as of this time, according to statistics from Harvard-Smithsonian professor and space launch tracker Jonathan McDowell. Starlink is optimized to bring broadband service to remote areas, which includes the Arctic and its surrounding oceans. The constellation operates in numerous shells, or groups of satellites operating at a variety of altitudes and orbital planes that collectively beam service to broad regions of the planet. As the shells are filled by subsequent satellite launches, SpaceX expects to approach its goal of providing global access via the fast-growing network. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has already approved SpaceX for 12,000 first-generation Starlink satellites and 7,500 of the second-generation series that will be larger and more powerful.

SpaceX is clearly doing quite well at expanding its constellation, given that it launches dozens of Starlink satellites at a time roughly every week or two. That said, the community has been raising concerns about two problems with Starlink: interference with astronomy observations, and collision risk with other satellites in orbit.

Observations by both the Hubble Space Telescope and the European Southern Observatory observations have been impacted by Starlink obstruction, even though SpaceX has committed to shading its satellites and adjusting their positioning to reduce brightening. More recently, a peer-reviewed study published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics in May detected interference in low-frequency radio observations due to Starlink satellites. How this situation will play out, and its long-term impacts on scientific observations, is yet to be resolved.

As for collision issues, recent SpaceX filings with the FCC suggests each Starlink typically maneuvers on average about 12 times a year to avoid space debris — but that is to meet a higher standard of avoidance than international norms. Starlink satellites typically move with a 1 in 100,000 chance of a collision, while the norm is just 1 in 10,000 — exponentially lower.

That said, the FCC has been limiting its approvals for SpaceX, which wants to deploy 29,988 Starlink second-generation satellites, “to address concerns about orbital debris and space safety,” according to one recent ruling.

Another rival to Viasat, OneWeb, is set to merge with broadcasting giant Eutelsat in an attempt to gain market share. Recent quarterly results from Eutelsat suggest that the merger will take place as planned this summer, and that the addition of OneWeb’s broadband will counteract an ongoing decline in Eutelsat’s broadcasting revenues as audiences shift to pay-per-view.

OneWeb has had a rocky few years recently as a startup, and is likely hoping for a smoother road in merging with Eutelsat. The COVID-19 pandemic contributed to OneWeb entering bankruptcy proceedings in 2020; a few months later, a consortium led by Bharti Global and the United Kingdom’s government agreed to purchase OneWeb.

OneWeb also faced issues in launching its constellation, which it had largely expected to do from Russia. The Ukrainian war scuttled those plans (as well as leading to the loss of a set of satellites literally loaded on a Russian rocket at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, which Russia refused to release). SpaceX is now launching OneWeb satellites instead.

Another of the other big challengers to Viasat is Kuiper, the Amazon constellation that is not yet launched. Amazon is a giant in the consumer world and is now looking to expand its offerings into broadband. Given its fortunes, the company will likely be able to position itself as a serious competitor, once Kuiper is ready. Amazon plans to begin launching its Kuiper satellites in 2024 for an initial offering of about 3,300 satellites in the forthcoming two years, according to multiple news reports.

Business and science reporter, researcher and consultant.