01.09.18

Viasat’s curious antenna issues

Posted in Broadband, Financials, Operators, Services, ViaSat at 1:54 pm by timfarrar

Last fall, I found Harris’s announcement on its 2017Q3 results call that “we received our largest order for a single commercial satellite covering four reflectors, bringing total orders to eight over the past two years” to be particularly odd because the only commercial satellites on order with four unfurlable reflectors are ViaSat-3.

Viasat then effectively confirmed that they had made this order in their 10-Q, which showed that Viasat’s total satellite purchase commitments increased from $1037.5M to $1106.6M during the quarter and that the size of Viasat’s contract with Boeing had increased by $11.2M in the same quarter (presumably to cover integration of the Harris antennas).

Not only was Viasat’s order quite late in the game (some knowledgeable observers assumed that it would have been ordered back in 2016), but it is also just for one satellite, not for both of the ViaSat-3 satellites that are under contract with Boeing. Viasat may well have another purchase option (which it can exclude from its purchase commitments for the time being), but it is still surprising that it took so long to reach an agreement with Harris. And it may suggest that the construction schedule for Boeing’s second ViaSat-3 satellite will be longer than originally thought.

Another curious issue was Viasat’s decision to use a fake image of ViaSat-2, which Viasat’s President Richard Baldridge later admitted “in fact is not the actual ViaSat-2″ satellite, because “we obscured the sensitive parts”. It is hard to understand why Harris’s antennas are deemed so sensitive by Viasat when Harris themselves were happy to publish a mockup image back in 2016 (which has since been removed from their website) and the size of the antenna can easily be worked out from Viasat’s own FCC submissions.

Although I have no evidence to suggest this is actually the case, one possible reason for these two apparent coincidences would be if Viasat had sought to patent some features relating to deployment of the Harris antenna on ViaSat-2 in order to try and prevent rivals from making use of Harris’s unfurlable Ka-band antennas (in particular Hughes and SS/L will likely use them for Jupiter-3). That would certainly explain Harris’s decision to highlight during the Q3 results call that the commercial reflector business is “a commercial model driven business where we invest our own R&D to develop that offering. We sell it into the marketplace.”

Now we have Viasat revealing today that Boeing “has identified an in-orbit antenna issue, which has caused some spot beams to perform differently than they did during ground testing.” It seems very likely that the issue is related to the unfurlable 5m Harris antennas, since “Viasat believes the issue will not affect the coverage area of the satellite” and the smaller solid antennas will provide most of the geographic coverage, while the larger unfurlable antennas will provide the high capacity coverage within the continental US.

It also seems somewhat more likely that this is a deployment problem (i.e. an issue primarily for Boeing/Viasat) rather a problem with the antenna itself (i.e. an issue primarily for Harris), since the antenna performed “differently” (and presumably correctly) during ground testing. If this problem relates to a new feature that Viasat or Boeing introduced, then that would clearly be particularly contentious, especially if it was related to any patent issues that might have been in play previously. So now we need to wait and see how the blame game develops and what this means for the future relationship between Harris and Viasat.