Innovation

Amazon Kuiper: what you need to know about Starlink's latest competition

Amazon is getting into the space-based Internet gold rush. It's got a late start.

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

SpaceX’s Starlink is getting a new competitor that has money to burn. Amazon has gotten approval from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to start building its internet constellation, named Kuiper. The tech giant wasted no time after last week's green light, announcing that it would invest $10 billion into the constellation’s creation.

With a unanimous 5-0 vote, the FCC panel declared in a statement that “Kuiper’s application 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 Kuiper: What is it?

Named after the distant belt of frozen space rocks that includes Pluto that NASA describes as “the frontier” of space, Amazon’s expects its Kuiper system to consist of 3,236 satellites that will orbit the Earth at what’s called Low Earth Orbit (LEO), between 430 and 932 miles above the Earth’s surface.

Kuiper will specifically deliver satellite-based broadband services in the United States, Amazon says.

Dave Limp, Amazon’s Senior Vice President, expects Kuiper to be a gamechanger in areas without fast broadband.

One possible client: the military.

“We have heard so many stories lately about people who are unable to do their job or complete schoolwork because they don’t have reliable internet at home. There are still too many places where broadband access is unreliable or where it doesn’t exist at all. Kuiper will change that,” he said in a press statement.

Amazon Kuiper: Release Date

There are a lot of unknowns regarding Kuiper, including when the satellites will be developed and when the rockets will launch. But the company is working under a deadline of sorts: since filing with the International Telecommunication Union for access to a crucial band in the electromagnetic spectrum in March 2019, the company has had seven years to get satellites up in space. So Amazon has a hard 2026 deadline, but don't be surprised if they get there earlier.

Amazon Kuiper: Price

It's too early to know pricing for Kuiper, but Amazon will want you to associate it with cheap. Statements from company representatives discussing Kuiper note that the project will be directed, at least in some capacity, "towards unserved and underserved communities around the world." This often means looking at countries and regions without much money to spend.

Amazon Kuiper: Who would use it?

There are eager satellite Internet users all over the globe. If Alphabet's Loon balloons offer any clue, Amazon will likely towards Internet markets in Africa. A recent undersea cable break has sent Internet speeds in South Africa down the tubes, highlighting the fragility of a reliable connection not only there, but in Namibia, Angola, Cameroon, Gabon, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria, and others.

But Kuiper statements have also put an emphasis on America. There's some debate over who has the worst Internet speeds in America, but chances are that Montana, ranked worst by BroadbandNow, could be a good candidate.

Amazon sees a wide range of customers for Kuiper. It’s press release says that it could be used “by families working and learning together from home; by scientists and researchers operating in remote locations; by first responders providing disaster relief; and by companies of all sizes moving their business online. Project Kuiper will serve individual households, as well as schools, hospitals, businesses and other organizations operating in places without reliable broadband.”

One possible client left unspoken here: the military. Kuiper’s main competitor, SpaceX’s Starlink, recently signed a three-year contract with the U.S Army to explore the reliability of the service. Just as Blue Origin, owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, competes with SpaceX for military contracts, it is easy to imagine a similar competition playing out here.

A SpaceX rocket sending a batch up Starlink satellites into LEO. Kuiper will have to catch up to SpaceX's progress.SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

Amazon Kuiper: How it is different from Starlink?

At this stage, the main thing separating them is that Starlink is starting to get into space, while Kuiper still exists (as far as we know) on paper. SpaceX has a huge headstart on Amazon, something that can't be understated. But the two seem to be performing the same function: high-speed Internet from space, using a constellation of satellites. The numbers vary from company to company, but the projects seem to be the same. When they're both functioning, perhaps greater differences will emerge.

What’s next for Kuiper?

Getting FCC approval is only the beginning for the ambitious project. SpaceX is already sending Starlink satellites into space, and satellite internet projects are planned from smaller companies like Iridium and larger ones like Boeing. And of course, there are flying Internet projects that are content to stay within the Earth’s atmosphere like Alphabet’s Loon, which has already begun operating in Kenya.

This high-flying Internet boom is being driven by projections that imagine a fortune can be found providing the Internet among the stars. A projection from Morgan Stanley sees space-based Internet becoming an industry worth over $410 billion by 2040.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that there’s a worthy humanitarian cause amidst all of that cash—weak broadband is a plague in rural America, creating an unequal setting for business and socializing, especially during a quarantining moment where connections to the outside world rely on the Internet more than ever.

Good PR through helping rural communities, and buckets full of cash? That’s enough incentive to make playing catch-up worth it. Speaking in a press statement, Rajeev Badyal, Vice President of Technology for Project Kuiper, says that Amazon is “doing an incredible amount of invention to deliver fast, reliable broadband at a price that makes sense for customers.”

Those inventions will come from a rapidly expanding team. Amazon currently lists a massive 110 job openings related to Kuiper. There are many things we don’t know about Kuiper yet—including what its satellites will look like and when they will launch, but one can expect that Amazon is investing to see results sooner rather than later.

The Inverse Analysis — Bezos and SpaceX's Elon Musk have become competitors in a number of areas, most recently in the space of self-driving cars, when Amazon's purchase of the small self-driving company Zoox earned Musk's mockery in the form of a tweet. Kuiper vs. Starlink promises to take this rivalry into space.

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