08 July 2019 News

Amazon seeks approval for 3,236 broadband satellite constellation

Satellite communications network. Image: Synertone Communication Corporation
Satellite communications network. Image: Synertone Communication Corporation

Following in the footsteps of SpaceX which recently received approval for the launch of nearly 12,000 satellites capable of providing global broadband from space, Jeff Bezos and Amazon.com have just filed an application with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to launch 3,236 satellites as part of its own intended low Earth orbit internet service.

News of Amazon’s Project Kuiper satellite broadband venture was first reported by GeekWire back in April, but at the time, Bezos had not yet applied to the FCC for permission to serve the US market with the constellation. However on 4 July, Independence Day, Bezos formally submitted the application.

“Amazon’s mission is to be Earth’s most customer-centric company, and the Kuiper System is one of our ambitious projects to fulfill this mission,” the application reads.

The project is expected to cost the internet shopping giant billions of dollars, but it will be “very good business for Amazon,” said Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos. “Amazon is a large enough company now that we need to be doing things that, if they work, can actually move the needle,” he said.

Broadband services via LEO satellites obviously do work and a multitude of other companies such as OneWeb, Telesat and LeoSat Technologies, have already begun to tap into this off-world resource with earnest. However, with an increasing influx of satellites filling the skies, a question frequently being asked is how many satellites can the night sky handle?

According to studies cited by Kuiper Systems in its filings, 21.3 million Americans do not have access to fixed broadband, with an additional 3.8 billion people world-wide lacking reliable broadband service, so clearly Amazon believes there is room for one more mega-constellation at least.

"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,” says the company’s application to the FCC.

The filings don’t go into detail about Project Kuiper’s satellite design, or when they would be launched, but having already built a solid ground infrastructure for its Web Services, including data centres and know-how to securely and efficiently transport data, all that is needed is for the hardware to follow suit.

Who will loft the satellites to their required orbit however is still an open question, as publicly traded Amazon would have to guard against conflicts of interest if it uses Bezos' private space company, Blue Origin.

Once the decision is made, the wholly-owned subsidiary will launch the satellites at orbital altitudes of 590 kilometres, 610 kilometres, and 630 kilometres – much closer to Earth than some of the other broadband constellations currently under development.

The Kuiper System's fleet of 3,236 Ka-band satellites are designed to maximise spectrum reuse, although there is some overlap with a part of the spectrum that Iridium is already using for its telecom satellite constellation, and the deployment plan will proceed in five phases starting with the launch of 578 satellites in 17 orbital planes; after which commercial operations will begin.

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