Mark D. Dankberg, a Rice University graduate and co-founder, chairman and CEO of ViaSat Inc., a leading satellite communications firm, has been elected to the National Academy of Engineering for his “contributions to broadband Internet communications via satellite.”
Dankberg earned a B.S. in 1976 and a master’s degree in 1977, both in electrical engineering at Rice, and co-founded ViaSat in 1986.
“When we started it was just the three of us with no money and working out of my house. We had little kids and big mortgages. We started pretty much at the bottom of the food chain, doing studies and building test equipment,” he said.
Based in Carlsbad, Calif., ViaSat today has some 4,000 employees worldwide and roughly $1.5 billion in annual revenues. The company launched its first satellite, ViaSat-1, in 2011. The following year it acquired WildBlue, based in Colorado, and its high-bandwidth communications satellite.
“Mark is a great engineer-innovator in wireless communications, and his leadership in the commercial sector has benefitted our nation with high-quality satellite communications across the U.S.A. and around much of the world,” said Edwin L. “Ned” Thomas, the William and Stephanie Sick Dean of the George R. Brown School of Engineering.
ViaSat-2 is nearing completion at the Boeing Satellite Development Center in El Segundo, Calif., and is scheduled to be launched April 25 at the Arianespace launch pad in French Guiana. ViaSat-2 has twice the capacity of ViaSat-1, which had 10 times the capacity of any previous Ka-band satellite. The new satellite is expected to deliver Internet service to customers starting in the fourth quarter of 2017, and will cover a geographical area seven times larger than the capacity of ViaSat-1.
ViaSat-2 will permit the company to offer Internet plans with 50 to 100 megabits-per- second speeds and data caps high enough to support frequent video streaming. ViaSat’s current plans start at 12 megabits per second and have data caps ranging from 10 to 30 gigabits per month.
At Rice in the mid-1970s, Dankberg took every class offered in the new and growing field of digital signal processing, including those taught by Tom Parks, now professor emeritus of electrical and computer engineering (ECE) at Cornell University, and C. Sidney Burrus, the Maxfield and Oshman Professor Emeritus of ECE and former engineering dean at Rice.
“Mark was a very bright student who developed into a very insightful entrepreneur. He had a mixture of theoretical and applied insights into new technologies, and this was combined with good business and people skills. He is a perfect example of what we try to do in engineering at Rice. He is a perfect choice for the NAE,” Burrus said.
In addition to residential Internet, ViaSat powers satellite in-flight Wi-Fi for some domestic flights from Jet Blue, American Airlines, United Airlines and Virgin America. ViaSat also provides communications gear and encryption services to government customers, including the military and Air Force One.
“Mark built the company from scratch. He instantly saw satellites as a great way to deliver information, and he has remained technically engaged from day one. He is first and foremost a working engineer,” said Behnaam Aazhang, the J.S. Abercrombie Professor in ECE at Rice.
Dankberg began his engineering career with the Collins Radio Division of Rockwell International, and then at Linkabit Corp in San Diego, where he held positions in engineering, technical management and business segment management. He remained there until he founded ViaSat.
Since 2013, Dankberg has been a member of the Rice University Board of Trustees, and has served on the Advancement Committee for Rice’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. His daughter, daughter-in-law and nephew are also Rice graduates.
Dankberg received the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics International Communications Award in 2008, and was named “Visionary Executive of the Year” for 2012 by Satellite Research and Markets. The ViaSat-1 satellite was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s highest bandwidth communications satellite. In 2013 he received the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation’s Industry Innovator Award, and two years later he was inducted into the Society of Satellite Professionals Hall of Fame.
Dankberg was one the 84 new members and 22 foreign members elected to the NAE this year, bringing the total U.S. membership to 2,281 and foreign membership to 249.