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Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

New Frontiers
By AnnaMaria Stephens, ERC ’97

ViaSat, co-founded by Steve Hart, M.A. '80, and Mark Miller, Warren '81, launched the world's highest-capacity communications satellite from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

This fall, ViaSat will equip JetBlue Airway’s entire fleet of planes with broadband satellite for in-flight Internet service, the first system of its kind for commercial aviation.

PROTON POWER: The satellite, covered with graish panels, sits atop the Proton rocket on the rail-car transporter. It will be tilted up to vertical on the launch pad, and the panels removed.

Last October, on an observation deck about eight kilometers from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, ViaSat co-founder and CTO Mark Miller, Warren ’81, waited nervously for the countdown to commence.

A chartered flight from Moscow had dropped him at a tiny airport, where he’d been whisked away on a bus through a camel-dotted desert landscape to the Russian-operated base. Around midnight, after an elegant dinner hosted by International Launch Services, the U.S. company handling the launch, Miller and his colleagues headed to the viewing room. There, they would wait, until they found out whether ViaSat-1—the highest-capacity satellite in the world—had reached geostationary orbit some 35,000 kilometers (22,000 miles) above the earth. If successful, it would mean fast, reliable Internet access for underserved subscribers across North America.

Ten. Nine. Eight.
Meanwhile, back at the ViaSat headquarters in Carlsbad, Calif., the company’s other co-founder and CTO, Steve Hart, M.A. ’80 and his wife Sue, Ph.D. ’86, joined the employees who had gathered with their families to watch the launch from afar. To celebrate the much-anticipated event, ViaSat had hired a rock-concert stage manager to set up a mega video display and a wall of speakers. Kids played with souvenir plastic toy rockets and the crowd buzzed with collective anticipation.

At local schools with ties to ViaSat, students took a break from their lessons to watch the launch online, as did ViaSat employees at sites around the country. The communications company had sunk more than five years of research and several hundreds of millions of dollars into ViaSat-1 and its corresponding ground systems. This launch was a nail-biting big deal.

Seven. Six. Five.
ViaSat’s executives were understandably apprehensive. Russia had experienced a number of critical launch mishaps in the months leading up to the grand debut of ViaSat-1. A similar satellite—made by the same company contracted to build ViaSat-1—had recently failed to deploy the solar arrays that were essential to power the satellite. ViaSat-1 is equipped with two of those generating mechanisms. If only one were to deploy, the satellite would operate at half capacity; if neither did, the orbiter essentially would become an expensive piece of space junk. Consequently, ViaSat put the brakes on, delaying the launch to tweak the design accordingly. As Miller waited in Kazakhstan, he felt confident but not certain of the outcome. With space flight, there’s always the potential for total failure.

Four. Three.Two. One.
At 12:48 a.m. on Oct. 20, the Russian rocket, ILS Proton Breeze M, and its 6.7-metric-ton passenger, ViaSat-1, blasted off from Pad 39 of the Cosmo­drome. Miller saw the flash of ignition first.

“Before the rocket lifts, you see flames coming out the side, and it’s a second or two before the rocket takes off,” he recalls. “I’d watched a lot of launch videos so I was familiar with the gap. Still, it felt like it took an eternity. I kept thinking: ‘Oh no, what’s wrong?’”

“You could feel it in your bones,” says Hart of the scene back at ViaSat. “When the rocket took off, everyone in the whole building was holding their breath.”

As the rocket boosted spaceward, eventually fading from view, employees cheered. It would take nine hours for ViaSat-1 to reach its destination, and Miller—who hadn’t slept in days at this point—knew they weren’t in the clear yet. Once in orbit, the satellite still had to deploy its solar arrays, a possibly project-ending moment as the failure of that previous satellite had proven. But that didn’t diminish the relief and exhilaration at ViaSat. The launch had been a success and, at that moment, the employees felt more out-of-this-world than their orbiting satellite.

READY TO SHIP: The complete satellite sits on the manufacturing floor, prior to shipping to Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan for the launch. All four reflectors (two of which are shown right foreground) and solar panels are folded up so it can fit inside the fairings for launch.

Garage Startup
When Miller and Hart co-founded ViaSat out of chairman and CEO Mark Dankberg’s garage in 1986, building satellites hadn’t even crossed their minds. As a small startup, ViaSat focused on the advanced groundwork electronics that enable fast, secure communications systems, especially for the government and military sectors.

“When we picked our company’s name, I thought it was funny,” says Miller, “because we didn’t do satellites and had no plans to. Now the name fits great.”

Miller and Hart, both UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering alumni, first met Dankberg while working at Linkabit, the technology company that later spun off into Qualcomm as well as dozens of other innovative San Diego tech firms. ViaSat has grown at a rate of around 5 percent per year, landing it on countless top-rated tech company lists. About six years ago, with the track record and funding to support such a bold new venture, they turned their attention to satellite communication, hoping to lure a customer base in areas lacking terrestrial options.

Land-based Internet is limited to major metro areas where the costs of digging trenches or stringing wires can be justified. Physical barriers created by mountains, water, or other rugged geography also limit its reach. For subscribers in these spots, satellite service is often the only option. But to those who have to rely on a satellite connection, it is often not a choice they want to make: Sluggish is an understatement. The Web offerings most of us take for granted, from fast browsing to smooth movie streaming, are a pipe dream for those users. The ViaSat-1 promise is to bring them up to speed.

“By creating a system that has 10 times the capacity of any previous system, we put a much larger inventory of bits into space,” explains Miller. “That lowers the cost of each bit and enables us to provide a service that is three to four times faster than any satellite Internet before, at a competitive price. Satellite is now able to be more than just a bare-essential connection for remote and rural populations. It also provides a new, attractive choice to underserved consumers who may have sub-par DSL or cable service.”

Architecting a Satellite
Miller and a small team of engineers spent about 18 months architecting the satellite before getting a vendor under contract in early 2008. Leading up to the launch, ViaSat took a few tentative steps forward in its new business: first by acquiring WildBlue, a small satellite Internet provider, and then by partnering with the European company Eutelsat, which successfully launched its own high-capacity satellite, KA-SAT, using ViaSat’s technology.

“Rather than designing just a satellite, we designed a system,” says Miller. “We looked at the satellite, the ground equipment we’re building around it, and how we planned to operate the whole thing.”

“We’re very vertically integrated,” adds Hart. “We make everything from the RF chip that goes in the home antenna to the home antenna itself to the modem and the software and the big dishes that talk to the satellite.”

EMPLOYEES IN AWE: ViaSat employees watch the launch from the courtyard of the corporate offices in Carlsbad.

A New Model
The company’s next-generation ground technology addresses the delays that have given satellite Internet service a bad reputation. “We invested a lot of money on how to make the Internet seem fast,” says Hart.

Each transaction with the satellite takes a quarter of a second. Such a miniscule delay doesn’t sound like a big deal, but today’s browsers sometimes require hundreds of transactions per page to deal with complex protocols. To put this into context: Typical cable has a delay of about 30 milliseconds as opposed to 250 milliseconds for a satellite.

“We basically had to reverse engineer the Internet, and then repackage it for the browser,” explains Hart. “We figured out how to make the web pages snap crisply to your screen. It almost seems a magic trick. When we demonstrated it at the Consumer Trade Show, people couldn’t believe it was a satellite.”

ViaSat’s new Internet service, marketed as Exede, offers speeds competitive with DSL and cable. While it doesn’t match the performance of the best cable and fiber options, it directly competes with providers such as AT&T and Verizon. ViaSat-1 services the entire eastern half of the U.S. as well as the West Coast, the Phoenix and Denver metro areas, Hawaii, parts of Alaska, and parts of Canada. WildBlue picks up the middle of the country, while Eutelsat caters to Europe and the Mediterranean basin.

“We are talking to potential partners in many other regions of the world to bring them this transformational new technology,” says Miller. “Since we have shipped over one million terminals to date, the system has made satellite modems just as affordable as other consumer electronic devices, even for lower income regions of the world.

“The economics of high-capacity satellite make all kinds of new communication services feasible,” he adds. “We are working on serving new markets in voice-over-IP (VOIP), in-flight Internet for airlines, newsgathering, enterprise networking, and portable communications for first-responders, government agencies, the military and law enforcement.”

Visionary Company
Miller points out that ViaSat-1 is a diverse company, with revenue split 50/50 between commercial and government applications. “While most of our businesses are exploring ways to use our high-capacity satellite system, only a fairly small percentage of our employees [are] dedicated to designing [the actual] satellite systems.”

Still, both agree that ViaSat-1 has ignited their workforce, which included 125 UC San Diego alumni at last count. “UCSD is by far our number-one hiring spot,” says Hart. “The electrical engineering department is superb—one of the best in the country,” adds Miller.

“This ended up being not only our most significant project in terms of money we’re investing, but our biggest single project from a development perspective,” says Hart. “We had people at every location involved in it. It was a good way to exercise all of our sites and to practice our skills.

“Some companies go for maximum efficiency,” he adds. “They want the team to sit in the same room. We go for maximum diversity, to form the broadest possible team in terms of geography, brains, skill set and the junior-senior mix.”

Even recent UC San Diego alumnus Stephan Kemper, Warren ’10, played a role on the computer science side, working on data analysis and application-level software for the system. “It was an incredible experience to be a part of something like this,” he says.

And there will be plenty more company-wide teamwork and innovation to come for ViaSat, which in March received an award for its vision from the Society of Satellite Professionals International.

“Once you decide to be in the Internet business, it means your world is now changing at Internet speed,” says Hart. “We have a 140-Gbps satellite. In three or four years, that won’t be competitive. Soon you’ll have to get up to 500 gigabits, or a terabyte. To use a cell phone analogy, you always want smaller and faster.”

This fall, ViaSat will equip JetBlue Airway’s entire fleet of planes with broadband satellite for in-flight Internet service, the first system of its kind for commercial aviation. And, since mobile is among the applications that exploit the fundamental advantages that satellite has over terrestrial services, other new markets could open. Depending on the customer fill rate for ViaSat-1, the company hopes to launch another satellite by 2015 or 2016—surely just the start for this high-tech success story.

“We look at the satellite as a capacity pipe,” says Miller. “What you put through it has to do with how clever your business and marketing guys can be to dream up different uses."

AnnaMaria Stephens, ERC 97, is a freelance writer who lives in Seattle.