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Elon Musk and Amazon stir up a satellite battle

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and Amazon’s Project Kuiper escalated a different kind of Star Wars today, over the orbital parameters for their rival satellite constellations.

Musk complained that Amazon’s protest would “hamstring” SpaceX’s Starlink broadband satellites, while Amazon replied that SpaceX was seeking to “smother competition in the cradle if it can.”

It’s just the latest space spat between the world’s two richest individuals, pitting Musk against Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

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How Amazon’s cloud and satellite ventures mesh

Amazon Web Services and the Project Kuiper satellite internet venture may be separate domains of Jeff Bezos’ business empire, but even Amazon’s executives admit there’s a lot of potential for synergy.

That’s one reason why the prospects for Project Kuiper shouldn’t be underestimated, even though Amazon is lagging behind SpaceX and OneWeb in the commercial satellite space race.

Project Kuiper announced last year that it intends to put 3,236 satellites into low Earth orbit, creating a constellation that would provide broadband internet access to the billions of people around the world who lack high-speed connections.

“Access to broadband is going to be very close to being a fundamental human need as we move forward. … It’s also a very good business for Amazon,” CEO Jeff Bezos said at last year’s re:MARS conference.

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Amazon’s Project Kuiper shows off satellite antennas

Amazon’s Project Kuiper hasn’t yet said when it’ll start launching satellites or providing broadband internet access from above, but it is sharing details about how customers will get their data.

The $10 billion project, which aims to put more than 3,200 satellites into low Earth orbit, will use an innovative type of phased-array antenna that overlays one set of tiny elements on top of another set, Amazon said today in a blog posting. “This has never been accomplished in the Ka-band,” the company said.

Amazon says the innovation should result in a lightweight, low-cost customer terminal with an antenna that’s only 12 inches (30 centimeters) wide. The hardware is being developed primarily at Project Kuiper’s research and development facility in Redmond, Wash.

“If you want to make a difference for unserved and underserved communities, you need to deliver service at a price that makes sense for customers,” said Rajeev Badyal, vice president of technology for Project Kuiper at Amazon. “This simple fact inspired one of our key tenets for Kuiper: to invent a light, compact phased-array antenna that would allow us to produce an affordable customer terminal.”

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Amazon commits $10B to satellites after FCC’s OK

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.

In response, Amazon said it would invest more than $10 billion in the project. “We’re off to the races,” Dave Limp, Amazon’s senior vice president of devices and services, said in a statement.

The FCC’s non-interference requirements and other conditions are laid out in a 24-page order that was adopted on July 29 and released today. The ruling addresses objections registered by Amazon’s rivals — including SpaceX, OneWeb and Telesat.

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 FCC’s 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.

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FCC chief tweets support for Amazon satellite plan

The Federal Communications Commission’s chairman, Ajit Pai, says he’s proposing approval of Amazon’s plan to put more than 3,200 satellites into low Earth orbit for a broadband internet constellation known as Project Kuiper … with conditions.

In a tweet, Pai said he shared his proposal today with colleagues on the commission.

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Report: Amazon checking out OneWeb’s assets

Image: Satellite web
An artist’s conception shows a constellation of satellites in orbit. (Credit: OneWeb)

London’s Telegraph newspaper reports that Amazon is understood to be among the entities sifting through the assets of OneWeb, a venture that began building a constellation of broadband internet satellites but filed for bankruptcy in March.

Amazon’s interest has to do with its plans to create its own broadband constellation, known as Project Kuiper. The most attractive assets that OneWeb has to offer would arguably be its rights to radio frequency spectrum and its access to the U.S. market — advantages that Amazon currently lacks.

Among the other entities looking at OneWeb’s assets, according to the Space Intel Report, are SpaceX, Eutelsat and the British government.

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Amazon counters opposition to Kuiper satellites

Mega-constellation
Multiple mega-constellations of satellites could take root in low Earth orbit over the next few years. (European Space Agency Illustration)

Amazon fired its latest volley today in a back-and-forth debate over whether the company can proceed in an expedited fashion with its 3,236-satellite Project Kuiper mega-constellation for broadband internet access.

Today’s 24-page letter to the Federal Communications Commission addresses objections raised by SpaceX, OneWeb and other mega-constellation ventures to Amazon’s request for an “expeditious grant” of its application to launch and operate the Kuiper satellites.

“Affording equitable access to spectrum and orbital resources will increase investment, innovation, and consumer choice.” Mariah Dodson Shuman, corporate counsel for Kuiper Systems, Amazon’s satellite subsidiary, wrote in the letter.

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Amazon’s Project Kuiper satellite team is moving

Jeff Bezos
Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon and Blue Origin, speaks at the Satellite 2017 conference in Washington, D.C. (Via Satellite Magazine via YouTube)

Amazon announced today that its Project Kuiper satellite operation has outgrown its current office space, and will move into 219,000 square feet of space that it’s leasing in Redmond, Wash. — the same city where one of its chief rivals, SpaceX, has its own satellite operation.

The new headquarters facility, spread across two buildings, will include offices and design space, research and development labs and prototype manufacturing facilities, Amazon said today in a news release.

“Renovations on the facility are already underway, and the Kuiper team will move into the new site in 2020,” Amazon said.

Kuiper HQ will be in the same locale as Microsoft’s world headquarters, and within about an hour’s drive (on a good day) from the growing HQ for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ other big space venture, Blue Origin, south of Seattle in Kent, Wash.

Redmond Commerce Center, which is about a half-mile from SpaceX’s original Redmond office building, seems the likeliest prospect for Project Kuiper’s headquarters. It has two buildings that were recently leased to new tenants, with a total of just over 219,000 square feet. Renovation work is underway, according to Redmond city records. The property’s parking lot has spaces for 300 vehicles.

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How the Seattle area became a satellite hotspot

SpaceX employees in Redmond
SpaceX employees in Redmond, Wash., give a cheer during the countdown to a Falcon 9 rocket launch that put dozens of Redmond-built SpaceX Starlink satellites in orbit on Nov. 11. (SpaceX via YouTube)

Seattle may not be the best place to put a launch pad, but the region is turning into one of the most prolific satellite production centers in the United States.

“How many of you know that Washington state is actually one of the world’s leading satellite manufacturers?” Roger Myers, a longtime aerospace executive who is currently president-elect of the Washington State Academy of Sciences, asked during a session of the Pacific Northwest Economic Region’s Economic Leadership Forum on Nov. 18.

In terms of sheer mass and revenue, Colorado-based Lockheed Martin and Boeing’s satellite operation in California still have bragging rights.

But when you tally up how many satellites have been launched in the past couple of years, it’s hard to beat SpaceX’s satellite development and manufacturing facility in Redmond, Wash.

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Amazon exec expects satellites to boost sales

Amazon's Dave Limp
Dave Limp, Amazon’s devices and services chief, chats with GeekWire co-founder Todd Bishop during the GeekWire Summit. (Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire)

Why is Amazon planning to put thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit? Part of the motivation is to expand Amazon’s footprint in online sales and cloud computing services, says Dave Limp, the company’s devices and services chief.

During a fireside chat at this week’s GeekWire Summit in Seattle, Limp said the primary motivation for Project Kuiper, Amazon’s future satellite mega-satellite constellation, is to offer broadband internet access to the billions of people who are currently underserved. That echoes what Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said at the re:MARS conference in June when he talked about Project Kuiper’s genesis.

Building basic infrastructure is also the justification for Amazon’s newly announced effort to build a low-bandwidth, intermediate-range wireless network known as Sidewalk. Project Sidewalk will connect devices that take advantage of the Internet of Things — ranging from appliances to smart lights and dog collars.

Limp made clear this week that providing connectivity isn’t a purely philanthropic effort. He said that faster, wider broadband access can boost retail markets as well as the reach of Amazon Web Services, or AWS, the company’s cloud platform.

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