Access to broadband while airborne is one of the crucial elements of effective mobile command and control. New developments in antenna and satellite technology—along with more nimble, high-capacity global networks—is bringing this dream of military commanders closer to a reality. In this Defense Systems Pathfinder, we discuss the issues with Paul Baca, vice president and general manager of global mobile broadband systems, ViaSat Inc.
q1 What is the state of broadband for airborne mobility today? View Answer

Paul Baca
VP and General Manager of
Global Mobile Broadband Systems,
ViaSat

We’re on the forefront of that technology and capability, and it’s certainly a growing market space. In years past, people have succeeded in putting broadband on airborne platforms. But because of the cost of the space segment and the high cost of service via satellite, it hasn’t really had the traction that it’s getting today with many options for providing that capability.

q2 What are the hardware requirements for airborne mobility in terms of antennas, etc.? View Answer

Paul Baca
VP and General Manager of
Global Mobile Broadband Systems,
ViaSat

It’s very dependent on the size of the platform. For smaller aircraft, of course, you need smaller antennas. It’s difficult to put a large antenna on a small airplane. With smaller airplanes and smaller dishes it’s a real technology stretch to squeeze as much data rate as you can out of a small antenna. On an airplane, especially a military airplane, they want to get a lot of data off of an aircraft, so doing that with a small antenna is complex. Typically, larger airplanes fly much faster than smaller airplanes, which means you can’t have a big radome -- a big bubble on top of the aircraft -- to accommodate a large antenna. You must have much lower-profile type antennas. Ideally a flat-panel sort of phased-array antenna would be great for larger aircraft, but that technology isn’t mature enough, especially for a moving platform. So it’s typically a very low-profile type antenna that must be housed under the radome of a larger airplane.

q3 How are you leveraging commercial technologies in the antenna world -- for example, in developing solutions for the military? View Answer

Paul Baca
VP and General Manager of
Global Mobile Broadband Systems,
ViaSat

Nearly all of the antenna technology that we use for the military has its origin on the commercial side. For instance we service quite a few ISR-type aircraft, which are smaller aircraft with small 12-inch antennas, and those antennas we originally developed for general aviation business jets. Similarly, for the larger aircraft, medium profile waveguide antennas also came to a large extent from commercial technology. We have a contract with JetBlue, for example, to provide broadband for their commercial fleet. We’re taking that technology and applying it military aircraft like the C-17 transport.

q4 How have bandwidth requirements for manned ISR evolved from earlier programs, such as the Army’s EMARSS program or the Air Force’s Project Liberty, to today’s mobility needs on larger, airborne platforms? View Answer

Paul Baca
VP and General Manager of
Global Mobile Broadband Systems,
ViaSat

Those types of manned ISR programs are typically in a confined geographical area, so those data requirements are fairly easy to accommodate. You can lease some capacity on a satellite that has coverage of those regions and service those with a single satellite beam. The data requirements are evolving now because we are seeing more and more government aircraft that need to fly worldwide missions. In those cases you have to have a worldwide network, so you have to stitch together multiple satellite network coverage areas.

q5 You’ve described airborne mobility as beyond ISR to en route Internet and broadband communications. Please explain. View Answer

Paul Baca
VP and General Manager of
Global Mobile Broadband Systems,
ViaSat

As I mentioned, we have to set up a worldwide network that stitches together many, many satellite beams to create a network. It’s analogous to a cell phone network. An aircraft flying around the world and transitioning from beam to beam to beam is just like when you transition from cell site to cell site as you’re driving from city to city. There’s a lot of background networking required to allow aircraft to operate without interruptions in service as they transition from satellite to satellite. So we’ve effectively taken the satellite beams that we have leased around the world and stitched them together and applied networking techniques similar to those used in the cell phone industry.

q6 How would Special Forces, for example, take advantage of this airborne mobility? View Answer

Paul Baca
VP and General Manager of
Global Mobile Broadband Systems,
ViaSat

Special Forces often are required, at a moment’s notice, to fly halfway around the world to deal with a problem. Airborne, broadband mobility allows them to have en route communications. So rather than just sit in the back of an airplane and do nothing while they’re flying to a mission, they can conduct mission planning, they can gather last-minute intelligence information and download it to the aircraft en route, and do a lot of productive tasks during those many hours of transition from their home base to wherever they need to operate. So this en route communications capability really allows them to be constantly connected and not have that long interruption when they have to transition to a skirmish.

q7 What role will next-generation airborne mobility play in command-and-control on the move for the Army, for example? View Answer

Paul Baca
VP and General Manager of
Global Mobile Broadband Systems,
ViaSat

Army Rangers or Army airborne operations typically hitch a ride on Air Force aircraft to perform their missions. Again, this next-generation airborne mobility, which allows their aircraft to be constantly connected to their networks back at home, enables them to do mission planning. It makes them much more responsive, much more short-fuse-reaction capable such that they can make en route adjustment to any activities that they’re going to deal with in real time. It also allows senior army officers and decision makers -- the command and control echelon -- to remain connected while they’re flying around the world to various bases.

q8 ViaSat says it also runs the network for airborne mobility. What does that entail in so far as setting up hubs, getting satellite capacity and running network operations centers? View Answer

Paul Baca
VP and General Manager of
Global Mobile Broadband Systems,
ViaSat

We have a worldwide Ku network today that we call the ViaSat Global Network. Our model for operating that network is that we own all the hubs and all of the ground equipment and we lease the bandwidth that we connect via these hubs. So we own the network and we’re continually augmenting and upgrading the network. It’s a turnkey capability that the government can rely on. With us operating our own network, we can sell it just like Verizon sells their cell phone service. We can sell equipment that the government can install on an aircraft, as well as a monthly subscription for bandwidth.

q9 When you set up a network for air mobility, what’s different about the requirements or traffic characteristics, compared to other mobile or fixed networks? View Answer

Paul Baca
VP and General Manager of
Global Mobile Broadband Systems,
ViaSat

As you can imagine, with air mobility aircraft are flying around the world, being able to predict their patterns, their use cases, is a difficult task – there’s a lot of analysis we do. But historically we have been very quick-reaction. We have partnerships with various satellite operators such that when we know there’s going to be a sudden and urgent need that was previously unknown, we can quickly set up a hub and accommodate it with additional bandwidth and connect that with our network operations center so that government aircraft can fly within the beam and connect with our global network. Combining our quick reaction and nimbleness with our worldwide network means we can easily add capabilities, requirements and hubs, and patch those into our existing network. In one instance we had a government request to set up a brand new satellite network within a week and we did it in 50 hours. We’ve done other operations in less than a week, where we receive a contract for a very quick reaction due to an urgent government need.

q10 How does all of this make the military more nimble? View Answer

Paul Baca
VP and General Manager of
Global Mobile Broadband Systems,
ViaSat

They don’t have to plan months in advance where they think they will need satellite capacity. Since we have our worldwide network, we can quickly lease commercial bandwidth, and quickly set up hubs. We’re able to accommodate them when they come to us and say we need ViaSat service in North Africa or a region of the Middle East by next week.

q11 You’re providing 15 systems under the C-17 airborne mobility program. What’s that all about? View Answer

Paul Baca
VP and General Manager of
Global Mobile Broadband Systems,
ViaSat

That’s mainly for en route communications that serve special operations. But it turns out that those particular systems have become quite popular, and at times when high-level government officials, such as the secretary of defense and others, want to fly incognito to places like Afghanistan they will use often use a C-17 with a VIP pod inside. More often than not they request these particular aircraft because they are equipped with high-speed broadband capability, which gives them and their staff the ability to continue working while they’re flying around the world. We’re in discussions with the Air Force, Army and other services that want to add this capability to additional C-17s, and we’re looking not only at Ku band but also to go up to Ka band.

q12 Tell me about the security issues associated with airborne mobility, and how that’s being addressed. View Answer

Paul Baca
VP and General Manager of
Global Mobile Broadband Systems,
ViaSat

There are various layers of security involved. First is the actual satellite link from the airplane down to the ground to the hub. That link must be secure, it must be encrypted, it must be protected in such a way that an adversary can’t tap into that signal and try to extract information. Users on the government aircraft that we equip also use our encryption capability to encrypt the link. There are also other layers of security that are of special concern to us, specifically the security of the hubs themselves. We are putting in place various security features into our hubs. Keep in mind that many of these hubs connect to secure government networks, but a lot of them also connect directly to the Internet. We need to protect them against vulnerability, and so that’s a major effort that we are investing in this year.

q13 You’re also investing heavily in high-capacity Ka band. What capabilities does that give you compared to conventional Ku or X band systems? View Answer

Paul Baca
VP and General Manager of
Global Mobile Broadband Systems,
ViaSat

The satellite we most recently launched is a spot-beam Ka-band satellite -- very high capacity, the highest capacity satellite in the world. Today most of the airborne broadband capabilities we provide to the government have been over Ku band. With our Ka band satellite designs, and the fact that we have more spectrum allocation, allow us to offer much higher data rates—much higher capacity than Ku band and certainly more than X band. We are getting ready to do some demonstrations to show the military the advantages of this Ka capacity. We’re talking about factors of 10 in terms of the data rates they can get with high-capacity Ka versus what they can get today with Ku. Rather than 3 or 4 megabits per second off an aircraft, we can potentially look forward to 20, 30, 40 megabits per second in the future.

q14 There is a strong connection between satellite system design and performance. Can you tell us a little more about that? View Answer

Paul Baca
VP and General Manager of
Global Mobile Broadband Systems,
ViaSat

It’s all about the satellite. Historically, Ku-band satellites have been designed to provide maximum coverage, so a satellite operator will design a satellite with a beam that covers an entire country, or a big chunk of a continent. That imposes limitations on the capability of that coverage. For a Ka-band high-capacity satellite, we have many small but very high-powered spot beams that allow us to provide much higher data rates. That adds complexity. When aircraft fly in an area where it’s high capacity Ka coverage with very small spot beams, they have to transition from beam to beam much more frequently. So the handoff and the ability to transition beams becomes much more of a networking problem. But we’ve got that cracked, and our long-term goal is to transition all of our customers from Ku to high-capacity Ka.

q15 You’re developing a broadband capability for helicopters. What is the advantage of that, and how are you doing it? View Answer

Paul Baca
VP and General Manager of
Global Mobile Broadband Systems,
ViaSat

A helicopter platform is a very complex problem. Satellite dishes require line-of-sight coverage directly to the satellite. The dish has to be looking right at the satellite without blockage because the high frequencies used for satellite communications are very susceptible to blockages. When you put satellite antennas on aircraft, you want to put them on top of the airplane so they have great visibility to the satellite. With a helicopter, you have the complexity of the spinning rotor blades that potentially block the signal of the satellite to the antenna because the rotor blades are quite large and spin over the entire fuselage. You have to develop techniques to overcome those short bursts of blockage. We have patents pending for waveforms that allow us to correct for the blockages that those blades create.

q16 This area is growing fast for ViaSat even in a time of such budget uncertainty. How have you accomplished that? View Answer

Paul Baca
VP and General Manager of
Global Mobile Broadband Systems,
ViaSat

A lot of what we provide we’ve pulled from the commercial side of the company. That has enabled us to use previous investments and capabilities to provide the government with broadband capability and connectivity without the government funding a huge DOD program. They’re able to take advantage of commercial off-the-shelf technology. They can come to us and buy a 90 percent solution or an 85 percent solution – one that really meets the majority of their needs and allows them to do that without funding that development.

q17 Any final comments? View Answer

Paul Baca
VP and General Manager of
Global Mobile Broadband Systems,
ViaSat

We have a roadmap in place. We just announced the expected 2016 launch of ViaSat-2, which will extend coverage over the Northern Atlantic, Caribbean, and Central America. We are outfitting some key government aircraft with Ka technology, and some of them are starting to deploy in regions like North Africa and the Middle East. Over time, our goal is to provide service to the government using high-capacity Ka systems so they can get the highest data rates possible. But we see that as a long-term transition. We’re not going to flip a switch and every one of the aircraft we service is going to be on high-capacity Ka. There are aircraft that will remain on our Ku networks for many years, and we want to allow our future government customers to roam from our Ka networks to our Ku networks. We’re developing technology that does that easily and seamlessly.