Huge, vaguely alien in appearance and rarely seen, large antennas made by Viasat quietly carry out a vital purpose for people and operations around the world - linking them to satellites that provide internet service.
Viasat is one of very few companies that makes 9.1- and 13.5-meter antennas. Designed for the latest high-capacity Ka-band satellites, the antenna systems offer broadband support to deliver high-speed connections for residential, commercial, and government services.
These critical pieces of equipment are typically installed in open, remote spaces - locations that offer clear lines of sight to the satellites at which they're pointed, and where it's easier to get the required spectrum licenses.
But if you were to catch a glimpse of these elusive structures, you'd likely do a double take. A 9.1m antenna's reflector is 30-feet across, and the entire structure stands 35-feet tall; the larger 13.5m reflector measures 45-feet across, with its entire assembly rising as high as 60 feet. These big pieces of equipment have a big job - catching and transmitting radio waves between Earth and geostationary satellites high above the equator.
"Your cellphone has a tiny antenna inside it because the cell tower is generally 2 miles away," said Viasat systems engineer Gerry Einig. "These satellites are 22,000 miles away. For them, the 9.1m and 13.5m antennas are the sweet spot. The bigger antenna provides more amplification for a much weaker signal. It has to be big to get those signals to and from that satellite."
Satellite communications networks require three main components to work: the spacecraft in orbit, the user terminal - the antenna on a home, business, ship, plane or other vehicle or location - and the ground network. The ground network is a collection of Earth stations connected to the internet by fiber optic cable. Often called gateways, they include such large antennas aimed at the satellite, and serve as the intermediary between the user and the internet.
While Viasat manufactures these antennas for internet service globally, it doesn't use large antennas to provide its own service on some of its satellites. Specialized technology on the ViaSat-2 satellite allows the company to use smaller antennas, drastically reducing the size and cost of each ground station while increasing the number and improving performance, bandwidth, and reliability. ViaSat-3, a global constellation of three satellites, is designed to transmit across a network of even smaller antennas.
Meanwhile, the large antennas are in high demand as internet service expands around the world. And our team in Duluth, GA, which specializes in antenna systems, meets those requests.
Viasat recently contracted with Avanti to provide ground equipment, including a 9.1m antenna, which will form a gateway in Senegal, West Africa. The gateway will communicate with Avanti's HYLAS 4 satellite, adding capacity that will expand coverage in West Africa. HYLAS 4, launched in 2018, is designed to provide high-speed internet service to areas of Africa and Europe that lack other options.
Viasat's large antennas have helped Australia bridge its digital divide. A few years ago, a series of 10 satellite Earth station sites were constructed throughout the country, each including two 13.5m Viasat antennas. The stations form the backbone of the country's internet service, communicating with Australia's two Sky Muster satellites to bring broadband to remote areas.
"That service would not be possible without Viasat antennas," Einig said. "We've got these installed in locations around the globe for both government and commercial customers. They will continue to be needed."
Viasat not only builds each antenna, company employees fly to the antenna's final destination to install it. The antennas can operate remotely and require no on-site staff using Viasat's ViaControl remote control system.
"These antennas are low maintenance and high performance," said Joe Baird, business development manager for Viasat's Antenna Systems. "They're designed to really outperform in standard circumstances, so we see them implemented for domestic and international military and commercial uses. They've been in use for many years; the design is well-defined and reputable."
While the large antennas typically serve geostationary satellites, Viasat also manufactures a full-motion pedestal antenna that can track fast-moving, low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites. Those are typically used by governments, providing Earth observation data, information about the status and changes in the planet's physical, chemical, and biological systems.
Learn about Viasat's largest 20m and 24m antennas