For now the ViaSat service outstrips anything on offer from satellite, but, soon, EchoStar subsidiary Hughes Network Systems intends to launch its own super Ka-band satellite with broadband capabilities that could be comparable to ViaSat’s. Hughes’ Jupiter satellite, slated for launch in the first half of this year, was built by the same company, SS Loral, that built the new ViaSat 1 Ka-band bird, which was launched in October.
But it remains to be seen whether the advanced technologies employed by EchoStar will match what ViaSat has accomplished with its own proprietary solutions. “We have advanced satellite technology to the point that satellite can now be a better alternative for broadband Internet than DSL and 3G/4G wireless offerings for fixed home use – an enormous leap for satellite broadband technology,” says Mark Dankberg, chairman and CEO of ViaSat.
ViaSat’s new Exede service, introduced in some parts of the country in mid-January, offers dedicated broadband links operating at up to 12 megabits per second in the forward path and up to 3 mbps in the return for $50 per month. By the beginning of March the service will be available across ViaSat 1’s entire footprint, which the company says covers about 70 percent of the U.S., including Alaska and Hawaii.
“This is a completely different economic proposition and quality of service compared to our previous offerings,” says Tom Moore, senior vice president of ViaSat. ViaSat, through WildBlue, a company co-founded by Moore that ViaSat acquired in 2009, provides 1.5 mbps residential broadband service at $80 per month from an earlier generation of Ka-band spot beam satellites.
Moore says ViaSat will add voice service “within the next two quarters,” with pricing still to be determined. The voice service is already operative for demo purposes, as was evident at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Both the broadband and voice aspects of the service were on display at CES, confirming the provider’s claims of breakthrough performance capabilities. In a conversation via satellite with Moore, the timing of voice responses was on par with terrestrial cellular service. “When we demonstrated the service to FCC commissioners they had the perception you couldn’t do voice over geosynchronous satellite,” Moore says. “It made quite an impression.”
In the broadband demo at CES Web pages loaded as fast as they do with terrestrial broadband. Videos from randomly selected sites displayed quickly without buffering.
As described by Moore, ViaSat is employing a broad variety of technological innovations to accomplish this level of performance, starting with the satellite itself. With capacity to operate at over 140 gigabits per second, ViaSat 1 delivers more throughput than all the currently launched U.S. Ku- and C-band satellites combined, he says. The satellite’s spot beams serve smaller geographic areas with more capacity per spot than previous generations of Ka-band technology, he notes, adding that interference mitigation is superior as well.
Ka-band communications, by virtue of the high frequency spectrum they work in, are more susceptible to atmospheric interference than lower-frequency Ku- and C-band communications, but, according to Moore, ViaSat has largely neutralized the difference. As a closed-loop system that monitors performance on every link, the ViaSat platform can identify situations where rain or snow may be reducing signal power and adjust the modulation level and data rate to maintain the connection.
“We use multi-level modulation, dynamic encoding and power along with forward error correction to allocate more resources when needed,” Moore says. The upshot is a ViaSat 1 customer’s reception in a snowstorm will still be operating for at least a little while longer when a Ku-band customer’s goes out in the same location, he adds.
Speed of communications is facilitated by ViaSat’s SurfBeam 2 ground-based architecture, which uses an advanced Web acceleration technology that goes beyond caching to provide a fast-responding Internet browsing experience, Moore notes. Acceleration software running on SurfBeam 2 servers positioned in multiple locations links with client software running on user terminals to perform such tricks as breaking up Web page components to deliver the container ahead of other objects on the uplink to the customer and then utilizing any relevant objects that are already there to speed rendering when the user jumps to another page.
Another big factor in performance has to do with the system’s ability to assign classes of service to different data service flows on a system-wide basis so that any given user consumes bandwidth in accord with quality-of-service priorities. This ensures that all high-priority traffic receives the bandwidth it requires while minimizing the impact on lower-priority traffic.
As to how the system appears to defy the laws of physics by delivering fast response in voice communications over the 44,000-mile roundtrip from one user to the other, Moore isn’t saying. Presumably the techniques include highly granular breakup of voice packets to get an initial audio signal to the destination as fast as possible.
The basic Exede service comes with a 7 ½ gigabyte limit on monthly consumption, which Moore says is the median usage level for broadband consumers nationwide. The next tier of service, priced at $80, caps usage at 15 gigabytes, and the top tier, with a cap of 25 gigabytes, is priced at $130.
As for Hughes, the company says it has already begun applying technical enhancements to its existing service, with the mid-level tier operating at about 1.5 mbps with a price tag of $80 per month, as it awaits launch of what it calls the HugesNet Gen4 service from the soon-to-be-launched Jupiter satellite.
“America’s best choice in satellite Internet is about to get even better with the launch of our new high-capacity satellite in the first half of 2012,” asserts Mike Cook, senior vice president of the North American Division at Hughes in a recent press release. “Our Gen4 satellite Internet service will be available mid-year 2012 and will deliver unprecedented speeds, download capacity, and ease-of-use so our customers can enjoy a media-rich world like never before.”