FCC says Amazon can proceed with Kuiper satellites but will have to work with rivals

Christel Deskins

The Federal Communications Commission has authorized Amazon’s plans for a Project Kuiper constellation of 3,236 satellites that would provide broadband internet access across a wide swath of the globe — but on the condition that it doesn’t unduly interfere with previously authorized satellite ventures. The non-interference requirements and other conditions […]

The Federal Communications Commission has authorized Amazon’s plans for a Project Kuiper constellation of 3,236 satellites that would provide broadband internet access across a wide swath of the globe — but on the condition that it doesn’t unduly interfere with previously authorized satellite ventures.

The non-interference requirements and other conditions are laid out in a 24-page order that was adopted on Wednesday and released today. The ruling addresses objections registered by Amazon’s rivals — including SpaceX, OneWeb and Telesat.

The FCC said Project Kuiper’s satellites are to be launched in five phases, and service would begin once Amazon launched the first 578 satellites. Under the terms of the order, Amazon will have to launch half of its satellites by mid-2026, and the rest of them by mid-2029.

Amazon had sought to vie on an equal footing with constellation operators whose plans had been previously authorized by the FCC, but the commission said that in fairness, Project Kuiper would have to give deference to those plans. The FCC said that it expected Amazon’s mega-constellation rivals to act in good faith to resolve radio interference concerns.

Although Amazon has said in the past that the design of its system is still under consideration, the order released today provides some insight into that design. The satellites will be built to deorbit themselves within 355 days after they complete their mission, so as to reduce orbital debris. Also, the beams used to send and receive data will be focused directionally, so as to minimize interference.

The details will have to be cleared with the FCC as well as the International Telecommunication Union once they’re available. The FCC also urged Amazon to work with the National Science Foundation to minimize impacts on radio astronomy.

Amazon revealed its plans for Project Kuiper just last year. It’s currently listing more than 100 open positions for the team, with most of those jobs in Bellevue, Wash. The company plans to move the team to a new headquarters in nearby Redmond once that space is ready.

It’s not clear when Project Kuiper aims to start service, but the FCC’s authorization suggests it’d be sometime before 2026. And although Amazon hasn’t specified how its satellites would be launched, it’s worth noting that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns a separate space venture called Blue Origin. We’ve reached out to Amazon for comment and will update this report with anything we hear back.

Amazon plans to use Project Kuiper not only to offer broadband internet service to billions of potential customers around the globe who are currently underserved, but also to facilitate Amazon’s other lines of business, ranging from online retail sales to Amazon Web Services’ cloud computing platform (and most likely Amazon Prime’s streaming-video offerings).

This week’s order enables Amazon to move forward with its ambitious plans, but Project Kuiper will have to navigate a careful regulatory path. It’ll have to accommodate previously approved satellite projects as well as the ITU’s requirements for the Ka-band frequencies that Kuiper plans to use.

Some of Amazon’s rivals in the mega-constellation race have already started deploying satellites in low Earth orbit, or LEO. That’s an appealing frontier for broadband internet service, because the orbits are low enough to provide ultra-fast signal response times.

SpaceX has launched more than 500 satellites for its Starlink constellation, and is planning to launch 57 more satellites within weeks. Starlink is already being tested for U.S. military applications. and SpaceX says it could start limited commercial service within the next few months. The FAA has approved further plans that would allow SpaceX to put tens of thousands of satellites in LEO.

OneWeb, meanwhile, has launched 74 satellites for a broadband constellation that could eventually amount to hundreds of spacecraft. The venture recently asked the FCC to authorize putting as many as 48,000 satellites in orbit. OneWeb declared bankruptcy in March, due to the economic disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic — but now it’s back in business, thanks to a billion-dollar deal involving India’s Bharti Global and the British government.

Canada’s biggest satellite operator, Telesat, is also working on a LEO broadband constellation. Tim Farrar, a satellite industry consultant at TMF Associates, said in a message to GeekWire that Telesat may play the pivotal role in Amazon’s plans.

“The FCC is requiring Amazon to demonstrate that it will not cause any interference to previously licensed systems from the November 2016 processing round. That might be possible under certain circumstances for systems like OneWeb and Starlink that only use Ka-band for their gateways, but would be much harder for a system like Telesat that intends to use Ka-band for its user links,” Farrar wrote.

“As a result, decisions about whether Telesat moves forward with its constellation will have significant consequences for Amazon’s ability to deploy the Kuiper system,” he said.

Update for 4:30 p.m. PT July 30: Another twist to the FCC’s order is that Amazon is receiving a waiver from the requirement that satellite service will have to be available in all 50 states plus Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Project Kuiper’s system design leaves most of Alaska out in the cold. Fortunately for Alaskans, OneWeb aims to make the Arctic region its first priority.

Meanwhile, the fact that Telesat could loom so large in Amazon’s future plans has already sparked speculation:

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