Amazon is likely to start actions soon for bringing high-speed satellite internet services o India, said sources to The Economic Times (1), in a move that is sure to ignite the competition with arch-rivals Elon Musk’s Starlink and Bharti-backed One-Web and curtail pricy satellite broadband rates.
The global e-commerce behemoth will approach the Indian government to discuss authorization, modalities, landing rights, permits, and satellite bandwidth leasing costs, the sources told ET. The DoS Department of Space will provide the landing rights to downlink foreign satellites’ signals in India.
The people further added that talks are on with the DoS and DoT, Department of Telecommunications for “necessary regulatory approvals” to bring Amazon’s high-speed broadband services to India through its Project Kuiper, a global space internet initiative.
Notably, Amazon invests over 10 billion USD under the project to create a constellation of 3,236 LEO, low-earth-orbit satellites. However, Amazon has not disclosed any specific plans for India yet.
The reports of Amazon foraying into broadband space first came in April 2019 (2). It aims to build a constellation of low Earth orbit satellites to offer internet across the globe with the project.
According to the giant’s plans, there will be 3,236 satellites making up three layers, 784 satellites at an altitude of 590 km, 1,296 satellites at the height of 610 km, while the remaining 1,156 satellites will be at 630 km.
The initiative will aid Amazon in making a strong entry into the booming global broadband market since the internet’s ubiquitous nature and increasing user penetration across the globe have created massive growth opportunities for businesses operating in the internet connectivity space.
Amazon is looking to disrupt the market with Project Kuiper, something that the e-commerce giant has been doing in other industries for quite some time.
Apart from Project Kuiper, Amazon’s cloud computing arm, AWS, Amazon Web Services is also working with Iridium Communications IRDM to create a satellite-based network called CloudConnect for IoT, Internet of Things applications (3).
What Makes Amazon’s Project Kuiper Different From OneWeb and SpaceX?
Last year in July, the company cleared an important hurdle, getting the authority to deploy and operate its Kuiper satellite constellation from FCC, the US Federal Communications Commission. However, Amazon needed to demonstrate that its project would not conflict with previously authorized satellite projects like SpaceX’s Starlink (4).
Even if there is a caveat from the FCC, it is still tempting to imagine the idea of putting a mega-constellation of thousands of satellites in low-Earth orbit to offer uninterrupted broadband access anywhere on the planet will turn into a battle between Jeff Bezos’ Kuiper and Elon Musk’s Starlink.
After all, how much room can be there, even in space, for two mega-constellations, let alone additional OneWeb?
Nonetheless, several experts suggest that Amazon’s real movement will come from its capacity to integrate Project Kuiper into its rest of the ecosystem, an ability SpaceX doesn’t have with Starlink.
Zac Manchester, Stanford University’s former assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics (5), says that “it is a whole different ball game with Amazon.” Zac explains, “the thing that makes Amazon different from OneWeb and SpaceX is it has so many other things going on.”
If Kuiper succeeds, Amazon can not only offer worldwide satellite broadband access; it can also include that access as part of its AWS, which already offers resources for data analytics, machine learning, cloud computing, and more.
First, let’s take a quick look at Amazon’s background on what the giant is planning with Kuiper. The FCC has approved the launch of 3,236 satellites. While it doesn’t have to launch these satellites immediately, it needs to launch at least half of the total, roughly 1,618 satellites, by July 2026.
Last year, Amazon stated that it would invest 10 billion USD, roughly the same amount as SpaceX has said it has invested for Starlink, to build the constellation. The satellites will circle the Earth LEO, which is any orbital height below 2000 km. These satellites will operate in the Ka-band, 26.5 to 40 gigahertz.
A common gist among companies working on satellite broadband systems is that the constellations would offer ubiquitous broadband access. However, except for people in rural or remote locations, cellular networks or terrestrial fiber almost always wins. In other words, no one in the city should clamor for satellite broadband.
According to Tim Farrar, a satellite communications consultant (6), if these companies think they are competing against terrestrial providers, they are deluded. Farrar further added that satellite broadband is for last-resort users who do not have any other connectivity option.
However, these last-resort users also include industries that can weather the massive cost of satellite broadband like oil and gas, aviation, and defense. These companies can make far more money in catering to those industries than creating several thousand satellites merely to connect individual rural broadband subscribers.
Now, what do these far-flung industries also increasingly have in common? Apart from industries like weather monitoring and earth-imaging that also depend on satellite connectivity is data —especially the requirement to move, crunch, and store huge quantities of data, which Amazon already offers.
Manchester explains that “one can see Project Kuiper being the middleman for getting data into AWS. While SpaceX, with its space segment, can get data from Point A to Point B via Space, Amazon can get data through the network and into their cloud and out to end-users.”
There are plenty of startups and other tech companies that do machine learning and other data-intensive operations in AWS and can use Kuiper to move their data. However, there have been no comments so far from Amazon on record about their plans for Project Kuiper.
Notably, Amazon has also built AWS ground stations (7) that connect these satellites directly with the rest of the company’s web service infrastructure. While building and launching satellites are expensive, building ground stations to connect those satellites is also a hefty exercise. And since Amazon already offers access to these ground stations on a per-minute basis, Manchester believes it is reasonable to expand that offering to Kuiper’s connectivity.
There is also Blue Origin for consideration (8). While the rocket company Bezos owns has a heavy-lift rocket that can bring Kuiper satellites into LEO. It also has at least one such rocket, the New Glenn (9), in the making. Farrar highlights that Amazon could spend the next few years in satellite development before it needs to start launching satellites in earnest. By this point, Blue Origin could have a heavy-lift option available.
According to Farrar, with the 10 billion USD in investment, Amazon will need millions of subscribers to consider the project a financial success. However, unlike, for example, SpaceX, Amazon can play a longer game. While the latter will depend solely on subscription to make revenue for Starlink, Amazon has a wider business platform, meaning Kuiper is not entirely on its own ability to attract users (10).
Moreover, Amazon has the resources to make a long-term investment in the project before turning a profit, in a way Starlink can’t.
So, what makes Amazon Kuiper different from others? They have all these things others don’t. And in a lot of ways, Amazon has a more ambitious vision. It is not trying to be a telco.
However, Kuiper is Still Far Behind From Others
In April this year, Amazon had bought nine launches from the Boeing-Lockheed joint venture United Launch Alliance to send its satellites into space, its first launch agreement.
The agreement is for ULA’s workhorse Atlas 5 rocket. However, there have been no comments so far from Amazon on how many satellites each launch will carry or how often the launch will be.
There is stiff competition since both SpaceX and OneWeb are also deploying broadband internet networks in LEO.
As we discussed, as per the FCC grant, Amazon needs to launch about 1,618 satellites into space by July 2026. The Atlas 5 missions will help the giant meet the goal, but it could use other rockets.
On the other hand, Elon Musk’s SpaceX is far ahead of Amazon with its constellation (11). It has been using its Falcon 9 rocket to ferry 1,355 of 12,000 satellites for its Starlink network.
OneWeb has also launched 146 of its roughly 650 satellites it has planned for its network. Telesat, another company, is also planning to launch its 300 satellites soon.
In a statement, Rajeev Badual, Amazon’s VP of technology for Project Kuiper, said that “Amazon’s Kuiper satellites are made to fit atop different types of rockets. However, the ULA deal offers Amazon with a reliable and capable rocket for its first Kuiper launches.”
Notably, Kuiper satellites will orbit the planet Earth at an altitude range of 590 to 630 km, or 366 to 391 miles. Amazon has claimed Kuiper prototypes have proved speeds of up to 400 Mbps, and performance will improve in succeeding iterations.
In 2020, the company unveiled designs for the antennas customers will use to tap into Kuiper internet. Users can also use those antennas to connect to other satellites in geostationary orbits or even deeper orbits at least 22k miles away.
In April 2021, the company stated that more than 500 people are working on Kuiper Project and that “its team is utterly focused on inventing new technology to make broadband more affordable and more accessible for customers.”
Blue Origin, Bezos’s space company, is in the late stages of developing a heavy-lift rocket named New Glenn. While Amazon could still pick New Glenn in the future, it is not ready yet. Instead, the giant is working with ULA, a company with collaborations with Blue Origin, its upcoming Vulcan rocket, powered by the same Blue Origin-made engines in New Glenn.
It is a winning deal for ULA, an industry heavyweight straggled behind Musk’s SpaceX for commercial launches. ULA has not launched anything, whereas SpaceX has launched at least two commercial missions this year. SpaceX’s reusable rockets are cheaper than ULA’s even though ULA has slashed its Atlas 5 prices to as low as 100 million USD from 187 million USD. However, SpaceX is, of course, Amazon’s satellite competition, making its rocket less palatable.
The shallow orbital layer where all these companies’ internet satellites will operate is getting crowded as SpaceX is speeding ahead with Starlink deployment. OneWeb had SpaceX disable its automated collision avoidance system earlier this year when two of their satellites were projected to collide (12).
Industry competitors, such as Amazon, have criticized SpaceX’s collision avoidance system for not sharing with others the movement of a Starlink satellite in case of a potential collision. According to analysts, it must have rules requiring cooperation in orbit, especially as Amazon is looking to set thousands of satellites in the same orbit as Starlink (13).
How can Satellite Broadband Providers Change Society?
The up-and-coming satellite broadband promises us a world where high-speed internet covers every corner of the planet, transforming the way people access education, health care, and entertainment.
Both Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are attacking the opportunity with billions of dollars, looking to solve an elusive issue of getting internet connectivity to the masses no matter where they live.
However, the concept is not new. Some of the original seeds were planted decades ago in the Pacific Northwest when Bill Gates, Boeing, Craig McCaw, and others bankrolled the ill-fated Teledesic (14), which promised a constellation of LEO satellites.
The satellite broadband efforts are coming to reality right before our eyes. Stargazers will start seeing more LEO satellites in the coming years across the sky, something that is already upsetting amateur and pro astronomers (15).
Notably, Starlink already has more than 1,300 satellites, with thousands more in the pipeline. Guidelines released earlier this year by FCC are designed to minimize satellite collisions and subsequent space debris.
There are still Early Technical Challenges.
According to David Patterson (16), “satellite broadband is like playing 3D whack-a-mole. You would come up with all of the problems to solve, and each one you would solve, another one would pop up somewhere else.”
The Need for Space Regulations
At present, it is vital to have space traffic management where there are clear rules of the road about responsible behavior, not only by governments alone but also by corporations in space.
We are at the stage where space technology is going into place. Still, policy, law, and regulation must catch up and ensure that things remain peaceful and stable in space, says Saadia Pekkanen.
Space Innovation Next Frontier
The most exciting part about satellite broadband and space tech innovation is that we are getting to the point where we can start creating new businesses on top of space infrastructure created by others.
Hence, having global broadband will offer us economic development in several areas, allowing us to raise economies and opportunities even in the most remote place on the planet.
Telehealth and remote education are just some examples. According to Rob Meyerson (17), there will be huge opportunities in areas such as time and location service, earth science, and IoT applications.