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Amazon investing $10 billion to compete against SpaceX in satellite broadband

Getty Images | Yuichiro Chino

Amazon has received US approval to launch 3,236 low-Earth orbit satellites for its planned “Project Kuiper” broadband service.

A Federal Communications Commission order granting Amazon’s application was released Thursday. Amazon said in a blog post that it will invest more than $10 billion in the project.

“This investment will create jobs and infrastructure around the United States, build and scale our ground network, accelerate satellite testing and manufacturing, and let us deliver an affordable customer terminal that will make fast, reliable broadband accessible to communities around the world,” Amazon said. Amazon will target areas without good Internet service and said that “Project Kuiper will deliver high-speed, low-latency broadband service to places beyond the reach of traditional fiber or wireless networks.”

The planned satellites would orbit at altitudes of 590km, 610km, and 630km, allowing latencies far lower than traditional satellite services that use geosynchronous orbits of more than 35,000km. That’s similar to SpaceX’s Starlink, but SpaceX is much further along, as it has launched about 600 satellites and is getting ready to start beta trials with customers.

Service to begin once 578 satellites launch

FCC rules give Amazon six years to launch and operate 50 percent of the licensed satellites, with a deadline date of July 30, 2026. Amazon would have to launch the rest of the licensed satellites by July 30, 2029.

Amazon plans to offer broadband to customers “once the first 578 satellites are launched,” the FCC said. Amazon hasn’t said when service will be available to customers.

The FCC approval said Amazon’s plan would “provid[e] continuous coverage to customers within approximately 56°N and 56°S latitude, thereby serving the contiguous United States, Hawaii, US territories, and other world regions.” The plan calls for using frequencies of 17.7-18.6 GHz and 18.8-20.2 GHz for space-to-Earth communications, and 27.5-30.0 GHz for Earth-to-space transmissions. The FCC said it granted the license because it “would advance the public interest by authorizing a system designed to increase the availability of high-speed broadband service to consumers, government, and businesses.”

Amazon filed the FCC application in July 2019—more details on Amazon’s plan are available in our story on the application.

The FCC approval includes requirements for minimizing orbital debris and collision risk, prevention of harmful interference, spectrum sharing, and power limits. Amazon’s design of the Kuiper satellites is not complete, so the company will need another FCC approval after it submits a final plan for orbital-debris mitigation, collision risk, and “re-entry casualty risk.” The FCC approval is also conditioned on Amazon getting a “favorable” rating from the International Telecommunication Union to show compliance with power limits.

Besides SpaceX, Amazon’s Project Kuiper would potentially face low-Earth satellite competition from OneWeb, which filed for bankruptcy in late March. On July 3, OneWeb agreed to sell the business to a consortium including the UK government and Bharti Global Limited. The UK government, which is investing $500 million, said, “The deal will enable the company to complete construction of a global satellite constellation that will provide enhanced broadband and other services to countries around the world.” OneWeb also has an investment from Hughes, which operates geosynchronous satellites.

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