Viasat’s government business was quick to underscore what the soon-to-be-spun off secure data communications products business means for satellite network operators, and what it means.
Viasat’s sale of its Link 16 Tactical Data Links product business to L3Harris Technologies for about $2 billion is certainly significant. Viasat co-founder and CEO Mark Dankberg acknowledged it in this blog post to explain the deal and what it means for the company as a whole.
Craig Miller did the same in an interview Thursday at the U.S. Army Association conference in Washington, D.C.
“We’ve never done a deal of this size before, so it’s really a big deal for us, but it’s a strategic big deal, and we’re not doing it lightly,” said Miller, Viasat’s president of government.
But as Dankberg wrote and Miller pointed out to me, L3Harris is Viasat’s subcontractor on Link 16’s MIDS airborne terminals, which means buyers and sellers are very familiar.
“They’re going to nurture this business, and they’re going to value people who are really at the heart of this business,” Miller said. “L3Harris will continue to nurture it, and maybe even accelerate the technology associated with it, faster than us, because it’s at their core.”
As for Viasat: Miller said the deal represents his employer’s pivot to its other broadband satellite communications and service-based models.
“It’s not something we’re doing as a signal that we’re getting out of the defense business,” Miller added.
Viasat has two upcoming milestones that represent strategic milestones for the company, borrowing from Miller’s description of the sale and highlighting what it sees as core.
The first launch of the future three-satellite constellation Viasat-3 is scheduled for early next year, followed by two satellites into orbit and operational in 2023.
Miller estimates the constellation will have nearly 10 times the capacity of the current Viasat-2 network, adding the ability to surge bandwidth to hotspots as needed.
The Viasat-3 has been built for the company for years, taking into account all the design, manufacture and testing required for such a network used by government and commercial enterprises.
“It’s transformative for us because it’s going to take us globally, leveraging the capabilities that we have in the U.S., basically the same capabilities around the world,” Miller said.
Then there’s Viasat’s deal to acquire satellite communications network operator Inmarsat, first announced in November 2021 while it was under antitrust review.
In that blog post about the Link 16 sale, Dankberg said Viasat would have greater financial flexibility to merge with Inmarsat and support other reinvestments in the business.
Dankberg also touted Inmarsat’s extensive spectrum holdings and L-band satellite fleet as providing growth opportunities for Viasat in narrowband satellite services and direct-to-mobile handsets.
Miller said that while the Viasat and Inmarsat networks were operating separately for some time after the shutdown as all parties struggled to bring them together, they were “already very compassionate” which should make the integration more manageable.
“You’re going to have a situation where almost anywhere on Earth, you can choose a Viasat satellite or multiple Viasat satellites, or multiple Inmarsat satellites that you can operate,” Miller said. “If you bring other network operators online and have partnerships with operators in low Earth orbit, it’s a very rich and powerful hybrid network.”
The concept of a hybrid network is also where Viasat’s work on 5G comes into play, particularly with regard to the way Miller defined it in last year’s Project 38 as a scalable network management architecture.
Or to put it another way, 5G is not just a spectrum agreement for more functionality in a phone.
Viasat has been awarded three government contracts for 5G experiments under a $600 million Department of Defense program focused on the technology, including a plan announced in June focused on expeditionary advanced base operations.
Miller said the most recent award required the company to figure out how 5G could make its way into a place that doesn’t have any land-based telecommunications infrastructure.
How he answers my question about what the ideal end state is may help explain Viasat’s focus and what the Department of Defense hopes to achieve with its connectivity vision.
“The ideal end state is that you can go to a place with no ground, phone or internet service, drop one of these 5G stations, and all of a sudden there’s a 5G bubble,” Miller said.
“But it also has broadband satellite communications backhaul, so you can go to an austere location that doesn’t have communications and set up places where you can use your phone and get online.”