Amazon forges satellite deal with Vodafone and Vodacom

Vodafone and its African subsidiary, Vodacom, have made a deal to use Amazon’s yet-to-be-deployed Project Kuiper satellite broadband network to extend the reach of their 4G/5G cellular networks.

The deal, which was announced this week by Amazon as well as British-based Vodafone, would give Project Kuiper business connections in Europe and Africa that are comparable to Amazon’s previously announced partnership with Verizon for extending telecom services in the U.S.

Vodafone and its subsidiaries provide mobile and fixed telecom service to more than 300 million customers in 17 countries, and partner with mobile networks in 46 other countries. “This is our second telco partnership, and we look forward to working with other telcos,” an Amazon spokesperson told me in an email.

Like SpaceX’s Starlink satellite network, Project Kuiper aims to provide broadband internet service to millions of people around the world who are underserved. SpaceX is far ahead of Amazon: While SpaceX has deployed thousands of Starlink satellites and has more than 1.5 million subscribers, Amazon hasn’t yet deployed a single Kuiper satellite.

Kuiper’s first prototypes are due for launch as early as this month, kicking off what’s expected to be an ambitious campaign to deploy half of the network’s planned 3,236 satellites by mid-2026. The satellite operations for Kuiper and Starlink are both based in Redmond, Wash.

Project Kuiper’s plan calls for selling satellite terminals to end users, as well as working with partners to connect geographically dispersed cellular antennas with the companies’ core telecom networks. The latter strategy is the focus of the newly announced deal with Vodafone and Vodacom.


Lawsuit questions Amazon’s deal on satellite launches

An Ohio-based pension fund has filed a lawsuit alleging that Amazon didn’t give due consideration to SpaceX as a potential launch provider for its Project Kuiper broadband internet satellite constellation, which is a rival for SpaceX’s Starlink satellite network.

The lawsuit, filed by the Cleveland Bakers and Teamsters Pension Fund in the Delaware Court of Chancery, says Amazon’s board of directors acted in bad faith last year when they chose three other providers — including Blue Origin, the space venture owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos — but left out SpaceX.

The other two companies were the European Arianespace consortium and United Launch Alliance, which will use Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine on its Vulcan Centaur rocket. The lawsuit says the three agreements add up to Amazon’s second-largest capital expenditure, after its $13.7 billion acquisition of Whole Foods in 2017.

So far, Amazon has spent nearly $1.7 billion on the launch deal, including $585 million paid out to Blue Origin directly, the lawsuit says.

In its filing, the CB&T Fund — which owns shares in Amazon — says that the company’s directors and officers, including the board of directors’ audit committee, made “no effort to properly discharge their fiduciary duties.” It suggests that Amazon’s decisions were unduly influenced by Bezos’ outside interest in Blue Origin.

The lawsuit tracks the tiffs that have arisen between Bezos and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk over the years, as well as the setbacks experienced during the development of Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket and ULA’s Vulcan rocket.

The pension fund questioned whether the company would be able to make a federally mandated deadline to deploy half of its planned 3,236 satellites by mid-2026. It implied that the prospects would be better if Amazon had struck a deal with SpaceX, which it said “has by far the most proven launch track record in history.”

“In the face of SpaceX’s proven reliability and cost advantages, Bezos-led Amazon’s decision to not even consider SpaceX as a launch provider illustrates the glaring conflict of Bezos’ affiliation with both Amazon and Blue Origin presented, and the substantial impact these conflicts had on the board’s ability to protect the best interests of the company and its stockholders in negotiating the contracts,” the pension fund said in its suit.

The suit seeks unspecified damages, legal costs and “immediate disgorgement of all profits, benefits and other compensation obtained by defendants as a result of their breaches of fiduciary duties.”

In an emailed statement, an Amazon spokesperson said that “the claims in this lawsuit are completely without merit, and we look forward to showing that through the legal process.”


Amazon revises Project Kuiper satellite plans … again

Amazon’s plans to launch the first prototype satellites for its Project Kuiper broadband internet constellation have changed for the second time in a year — and once again, rocket development snags are the reason.

The revised plans call for KuiperSat-1 and KuiperSat-2 to be sent into low Earth orbit by a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, with launch set for no earlier than Sept. 26 from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

The spacecraft are meant to test the systems and processes that Amazon will use for thousands of satellites designed to provide global internet access. Production of those satellites is scheduled to begin this year at a 172,000-square-foot factory in Kirkland, Wash.


Amazon’s Project Kuiper plans satellite processing facility

Construction is underway for a $120 million facility in Florida that will process Amazon’s Project Kuiper satellites for launch — marking one more giant leap toward creating the company’s global broadband internet constellation.

Details about the facility came to light today at a ceremony hosted by Amazon and Space Florida, the state’s aerospace industry development agency, at Kennedy Space Center’s Launch and Landing Facility. That former space shuttle landing strip where Amazon’s 100,000-square-foot facility will take shape in the months ahead.

The construction project complements Amazon’s efforts to create a 172,000-square-foot satellite production facility in Kirkland, Wash., which will turn out thousands of satellites for Project Kuiper. Today Amazon said that facility will begin production by the end of this year.

Amazon’s plans call for setting up a 3,236-satellite constellation, with at least half of those satellites launched by mid-2026. The resulting network is meant to provide broadband internet access for tens of millions of people around the world who are currently underserved — and will facilitate satellite-based offerings from Amazon Web Services and the Seattle-based company’s other divisions.


Pacific Northwest’s satellite hotspot celebrates its status

REDMOND, Wash. — This Seattle-area suburb has played a role in the space industry for more than a half-century, but the city of Redmond is shining brighter than ever on the final frontier — and now it has the brand name to prove it.

Welcome to the Redmond Space District.

Redmond Mayor Angela Birney showcased the newly established district in a proclamation issued today during her annual State of the City Summit at City Hall, with representatives of the area’s leading space companies in attendance.

The district designation applies to the entire city rather than to a specific neighborhood. Birney told me she hopes the campaign will draw even more space ventures to Redmond.

“It creates that ecosystem of innovation, technology, knowledge, people — all of that to create that really central place so they can come in and know that they’re going to get different resources for the space industry,” she said.


FCC plans to boost satellite connections to smartphones

The Federal Communications Commission plans to set up a new regulatory framework for facilitate hookups between satellite operators and wireless companies, with the objective of connecting smartphone users in remote or underserved areas of the world.

The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, adopted today, follows up on a string of demonstrations and announcements related to satellite-cellular combinations.

A Virginia-based company called Lynk Global has already shown that its satellite-to-smartphone system works, with the FCC’s blessing. Another satellite venture called AST Spacemobile is setting up partnerships with telecom providers around the world. The heavyweights of the telecom industry are in on the idea as well.


Amazon shows off antennas for Kuiper satellite network

After years of development, Amazon is showing off the antennas it plans to use for its Project Kuiper satellite broadband network — and says it plans to begin offering beta service for large customers next year.

The largest antenna, for enterprise customers, is about the size of a café table. The antenna designed for home use is as big as an LP record’s album sleeve and should cost around $400 to make. The smallest antenna, still under development, is just a little bigger than an ebook reader.

“I’d be remiss if I didn’t contrast it to a Kindle here,” said Dave Limp, Amazon’s senior vice president of devices and services, who helpfully made the comparison today during the big reveal at the Satellite 2023 conference in Washington, D.C.

Amazon hasn’t yet launched any of the 3,236 satellites for the constellation it plans to operate in low Earth orbit — and it’s far behind SpaceX, which says it already has more than a million customers for its Starlink broadband service. But Limp insisted that Amazon was in position to make rapid progress over the next year.

He noted that the first two prototype Kuiper satellites have just been shipped to Florida, in preparation for launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Vulcan Centaur rocket this spring. And he said multiple satellites should be ready for liftoff by next year. The Kuiper operation is headquartered in Redmond, Wash. — not far from SpaceX’s satellite factory — and Amazon plans to start mass-producing satellites at a factory in Kirkland, Wash., by the end of the year.

Limp said Amazon was on track to launch half of the satellites for the Kuiper constellation by mid-2026, using up to 77 medium- to heavy-lift rockets it’s reserved at ULA as well as at Arianespace and Blue Origin. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns Blue Origin as a separate, privately held space venture.) “For sure we will be beta-testing with large customers in ’24,” Limp said.


Study documents satellite interference with Hubble

An analysis of more than 100,000 images from the Hubble Space Telescope, conducted with the aid of artificial intelligence and hundreds of human volunteers, confirms that satellites including SpaceX’s Starlink spacecraft are increasingly interfering with astronomical observations.

The images used in the study, which is the subject of a paper published today by Nature Astronomy, largely predate the deployment of Starlink broadband internet satellites. But the trend line suggests that more and more satellites will cause more and more interference.

“This is an attempt to define a baseline before the swarm of artificial satellites for future follow-up studies of the impact of megaconstellations on space-based astronomy,” said the research team, which is led by Sandor Kruk of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany.


FCC clears Amazon’s satellite maintenance plan

The Federal Communications Commission says Amazon’s 3,236-satellite Project Kuiper constellation is fully cleared for deployment after the company filed an acceptable plan for dealing with the risks of orbital debris.

This week’s order follows up on the conditional approval that the FCC issued in 2020. At the time, the FCC said the plans for Kuiper could proceed, but Amazon had to update its orbital debris mitigation plan to address concerns about collision risks, coordination with other satellite systems, and procedures for satellite disposal.

After a back-and-forth with the Kuiper team and its rivals at SpaceX and Viasat, as well as interested parties at NASA and other federal agencies, the FCC it was satisfied with Amazon’s modifications.

“Our action will allow Kuiper to begin deployment of its constellation in order to bring high-speed broadband connectivity to customers around the world,” the agency said in the order it adopted Feb. 8.


Microsoft and Amazon join Pentagon networking effort

Microsoft Azure SpaceAmazon Web Services and Amazon’s Project Kuiper satellite network are now among the Pentagon’s partners in a campaign to upgrade space- and ground-based communications infrastructure for national security purposes.

The Defense Innovation Unit has awarded contracts to those three Seattle-area business units — plus SpiderOak Mission Systems, a space cybersecurity venture based in Washington, D.C. — in the second phase of the Hybrid Space Architecture project. They join four awardees from the first phase: Aalyria, Anduril, Atlas and Enveil.

“Hybrid Space Architecture ventures into an experimental communications vision that connects users from around the globe using modern and future communications,” Steve Butow, director of DIU’s space portfolio, said today in a news release. “The additional four awards from this solicitation provide new capabilities while seamlessly integrating into this dynamic and innovative collective of information and networking infrastructure that will provide resilient communications, and future technologies access, worldwide and beyond.”

The focus of the Phase I effort was to create a “Hybrid Gateway Satellite” to prove out next-generation networking technologies. Phase II is aimed at expanding the operational network to link ground-based cloud and internet services with commercial satellite constellations to facilitate secure communications via a hybrid public-private network.