In its attempt to keep pace with SpaceX and other competitors, Amazon is seeking FCC approval to put 3,236 interconnected broadband satellites into orbit.
Amazon’s prospective broadband satellite constellation, called Project Kuiper, was announced back in April, as first reported by GeekWire. Not much was known about the project, aside from the number of satellites involved and the intended orbits. Late last week, however, Amazon filed paperwork with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requesting approval to launch thousands of satellites into space, thereby providing a slew of new information about Project Kuiper.
In its FCC filing, Amazon claimed that 3.8 billion people around the world still don’t have reliable access to broadband internet, and that 21.3 million Americans don’t have access to fixed broadband.
“The Kuiper System will deliver satellite broadband communications services to tens of millions of unserved and underserved consumers and businesses in the United States and around the globe,” wrote Amazon in its application. The “non-geostationary satellite orbit system” will use the Ka-band frequencies, according to the company, and offer “fixed broadband communications services to rural and hard-to-reach areas.” The application also states the system will provide “high-throughput mobile broadband connectivity services for aircraft, maritime vessels and land vehicles.”
Amazon’s proposed satellite constellation is not unlike Starlink, a system currently being deployed by SpaceX. Back in May, the first 60 Starlink satellites were launched to low Earth orbit (LEO), kickstarting what certainly appears to be the beginning of a new era in satellite technology. To date, the FCC has approved nearly 13,000 LEO satellites, including 11,943 for Starlink. In addition to SpaceX and Amazon, other private companies looking to enter into the space-based broadband arena include OneWeb (which has FCC approval to launch 720 satellites, of which six are already in orbit), LeoSat, and the Virgin Group.
With all these satellites poised to go up into LEO, the FCC and other regulators are suddenly having to act like traffic cops. Companies that file for approval need to demonstrate that their constellations won’t physically interfere with other satellites. In its filing, for example, Amazon provisioned for a 40 kilometer-wide (25 miles) buffer above the orbital layer occupied by Starlink. Interestingly, OneWeb has asked for the implementation of a 125-kilometer-wide “Safety Buffer Zone,” stating in its in its 2017 FCC application that this would allow for “multiple large constellations to operate while providing the necessary physical separation to ensure a safe orbital environment.”
A cynic might say OneWeb is merely trying to limit the competition by constraining the space available to broadband constellations, but the buffer concept is both valid and necessary. A collision in LEO would disable satellites and produce a debris field capable of knocking out even more satellites. The space above Earth may be vast, but these satellites are moving at speeds approaching 28,000 kilometers per hour (17,500 miles per hour), greatly increasing the odds of a mutual collision over time.
According to Amazon’s FCC application, Project Kuiper satellites will be positioned between 590 and 630 kilometers (366 to 391 miles) above Earth and occupy 98 orbital planes. To mitigate the potential for space junk, each satellite will de-orbit itself in less than a decade, and they’ll be capable of doing so even if communication is lost with controllers on Earth, according to Amazon.
In its FCC application, Amazon said it has the “expertise, infrastructure, and financial resources” required to make the project a success, but the Jeff Bezos-led company is clearly looking to integrate the system within its pre-existing infrastructure, including its Amazon Web Services. As the company wrote in its FCC application:
[The] effective implementation of global broadband...services requires more than the design, construction, and deployment of a technologically advanced satellite system, low-cost customer terminals, and gateways. It also requires worldwide terrestrial network infrastructure and customer operations capabilities. Amazon sells products and services to hundreds of millions of customers today via physical and online stores, entertainment content streaming, design and manufacturing of consumer electronics devices, and leading public cloud computing web services. Amazon also has global terrestrial networking and compute infrastructure required for the Kuiper System, including intercontinental fiber links, data centers, compute/edge compute capabilities and the tools, techniques, and know-how to securely and efficiently transport data. Amazon will leverage its resources and capabilities to develop, implement, and interconnect the Kuiper System and terrestrial networks to delight customers.
Heh, to the “delight of customers,” but also to the delight of Amazon shareholders.
No launch date has been announced for the first Project Kuiper deployment, nor the kind of rocket that will be used. Now, it just so happens that Bezos owns aerospace firm Blue Origin, which is currently developing New Glenn—a rocket that would be up for the task (fun fact: OneWeb is already booked for five New Glenn launches). But as Alan Boyle and Taylor Soper aptly pointed out in GeekWire, “that could get tricky, because publicly traded Amazon would have to guard against conflicts of interest.”
Ah, shucks. But seriously, how hilarious would it be if Bezos had to ask Elon Musk if he could hitch a ride on some Falcon 9 rockets?