Amazon’s Kuiper constellation gets FCC approval

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Federal Communications Commission on July 30 approved Amazon’s request to operate a constellation of roughly 3,200 internet satellites in low Earth orbit. 

The FCC said Amazon has until July 30, 2026, to launch at least 50% of its satellites in order to maintain its authorization, and until July 30, 2029, to orbit the full constellation. 

Amazon, in a blog post, said July 30 that it will invest $10 billion in Kuiper — the same amount SpaceX has estimated it will need to invest in its rival constellation Starlink, which already has more than 500 small broadband satellites in orbit.

Amazon has not outlined a launch plan for Kuiper, and told the FCC its constellation is still being designed. The company said it anticipates deploying Kuiper satellites in five waves, starting service once the first, comprising 578 satellites, is in orbit. 

Amazon’s Ka-band system is “designed to increase the availability of high-speed broadband service to consumers, government, and businesses,” the FCC said. 

As a condition of its approval, Amazon is required to submit an updated debris mitigation plan to the FCC once its spacecraft design is finalized. The company plans to operate Kuiper in three layers, one at 590 kilometers, another at 610 kilometers and a third at 630 kilometers. 

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai indicated earlier this month he would support approving Kuiper, saying in a July 10 tweet that he shared a proposal with FCC staff to advance the constellation’s authorization. 

“Satellite constellations like this aim to provide high-speed broadband service to consumers in the U.S. and around the world,” Pai wrote. 

Amazon Senior Vice President Dave Limp thanked Pai in the company’s blog post for the FCC’s “unanimous, bipartisan support” of Kuiper’s authorization. “We’re off to the races,” he said.

Amazon joins SpaceX, Telesat, OneWeb and potentially Viasat in competing to provide high-speed broadband from low Earth orbit using large numbers of satellites. 

“There are still too many places where broadband access is unreliable or where it doesn’t exist at all,” Limp said. “Kuiper will change that. Our $10 billion investment will create jobs and infrastructure around the United States that will help us close this gap.”

Kuiper, in addition to beaming internet directly to ground stations, will also expand 4G and 5G coverage areas by enabling low latency backhaul services for cellular network operators, according to Amazon.

Rajeev Badyal, vice president of technology for Project Kuiper, said Amazon is “doing an incredible amount of invention” so that its constellation can provide consumer-priced broadband — a feat experts say hinges on the availability of cheap, mass-produced flat-panel antennas that don’t yet exist.

Amazon said in December it is setting up a research and development headquarters for Kuiper in Redmond, Washington, complete with laboratories, prototype manufacturing facilities, and office and design space. The company also plans to open a Redmond office for its Web Services division in 2021 with capacity for more than 600 employees. 

Amazon Web Services has a ground station business focused on connecting satellites in low Earth orbit, and in June created a dedicated “Aerospace and Satellite Solutions” division to sell cloud services to the space industry.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos also owns launch company Blue Origin, though Blue Origin has said it will have to compete for Kuiper launch contracts. Blue Origin has several commercial orders for its satellite-launching New Glenn rocket, which is still in development, and is competing against SpaceX, United Launch Alliance and Northrop Grumman for two long-term launch deals the U.S. Defense Department is expected to award this year.