On Aug. 10, 2017, Viasat Senior Manager of Access Network Engineering Randy Reynard’s tracking software picked up a severe tornado bearing down on Hays, Kansas. Hays is home to one of Viasat’s gateways — the ground antennas that keep in touch with Viasat’s satellites.
“When we see winds above 50 mph, sustained, that’s serious,” Reynard said. “That’s when we take proactive action.”
Proactive action in this case meant “bird bathing” the gateway’s main antenna — which is the process of pointing the dish straight up to help protect the equipment. While bird bathing does cause some minor service interruptions in the short-term, the goal of the process is to minimize the service outage for our customers following a severe weather event.
“Conducting ‘bird bathing’ is not something we take lightly,” Reynard said. “In cases of extreme weather, we evaluate the situation to determine the effects it’d have on service. The goal is to provide the best connection possible during all types of weather.”
For this particular tornado, it turned out to be the correct move: video from the Hays site showed extreme winds thrashed the gateway for several minutes, scattered debris and shredded out-buildings. The main dish escaped relatively unscathed, and service was back online within hours.
Harsh weather is one of the key factors that can affect the quality of internet service. That’s why Reynard and others in Viasat’s Service Assurance Center spend their days (and often their nights) obsessing over radar maps and weather mitigation techniques.
Following the tornado in Hays, Reynard worked with Viasat’s Network Operations Center team to build an automatic warning system to alert engineers to a severe weather event–predicted by the National Weather Service–near one of Viasat’s gateways. The new automatic warning system is expected to launch this summer.
“We want to get as far in to bad weather as we can before the customer starts feeling an impact,” Reynard said. “That’s the goal.”
An interesting fact to know about Viasat’s network is that gateways don’t necessarily serve the homes in their immediate area. They could be connected to customers hundreds of miles away – or farther.
“Your gateway could be anywhere in North America,” said Scott Allen, Viasat’s Director of Network Operations.
This means that a gateway in Kansas where a tornado is occurring could affect internet service to a customer that lives in Oklahoma, where there is no storm.
Regardless of location, there are a handful of weather events engineers are always looking out for. Obviously, some systems such as hurricanes or blizzards combine more than one extreme weather factor:
Torrential rain, described as precipitation falling at a rate of at least 2.5 inches per hour (or “big, fat, toad-choking rain,” as Reynard puts it), is the most common weather culprit for brief service interruptions. We call this rain fade.
Mitigation: Gateways can increase the power of their signals to help “burn through” precipitation. And, TRIAs, the smart boxes found on every customer’s home dish, can automatically increase its own power to help mitigate rain fade.
Snow and frost accumulation is not a major problem at gateways, because the important equipment is kept heated. However, it can be an issue if it piles up on the dish at a customer’s home.
Mitigation: Viasat recommends a light coating of vegetable oil or silicone spray to help snow slide off the surface of the dish. If snow still starts piling up, we recommend our customers gently brush it off. Just be careful not to knock the dish out of alignment, and stay away from the TRIA at the end of the arm.
Customers should of course use their best judgment and avoid climbing around on an icy roof if there is any potential danger.
High winds can damage equipment. Wind doesn’t generally interrupt the gateway’s reception, but other accompanying weather can.
Mitigation: Gateways are well protected from wind, and the large antennas can be “bird bathed” as a last resort. We don’t recommend customers take their own steps to protect their home dishes. If the dish is knocked out of alignment during a storm, we want our customers to call us, and we’ll work with them to fix it.
Power outages are a common side effect of weather events. If the customer’s modem doesn’t have power, the service won’t work.
Mitigation: Viasat has numerous backup power sources for its ground systems, so it’s unlikely that we’d lose power for a long period of time. For customers experiencing power outages, we recommend they contact their local utilities provider.
Satellite internet has long been recognized as one of the most durable connectivity options under rough conditions. And, by adding new innovations into our network – from the spacecraft to the gateways to the devices in consumers’ homes – we’re working hard to make our service even more reliable.