Amazon cleared an important hurdle when the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced on 30 July that the company was authorized to deploy and operate its Kuiper satellite constellation. The authorization came with the caveat that Amazon would still have to demonstrate that Kuiper would not interfere with previously authorized satellite projects, such as SpaceX’s Starlink.
Even with the FCC’s caveat, it’s tempting to imagine that the idea of putting a mega-constellation of thousands of satellites in low-Earth orbit to provide uninterrupted broadband access anywhere on Earth will become a battle between Jeff Bezos’ Kuiper and Elon Musk’s Starlink. After all, even in space, how much room can there be for two mega-constellations, let alone additional efforts like that of the recently-beleaguered OneWeb? But some experts suggest that Amazon’s real play will come from its ability to vertically integrate Kuiper into the rest of the Amazon ecosystem—an ability SpaceX cannot match with Starlink.
“With Amazon, it’s a whole different ballgame,” says Zac Manchester, an assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University. “The thing that makes Amazon different from SpaceX and OneWeb is they have so much other stuff going for them.” If Kuiper succeeds, Amazon can not only offer global satellite broadband access—it can include that access as part of its Amazon Web Services (AWS), which already offers resources for cloud computing, machine learning, data analytics, and more.
First, some quick background on what Amazon plans with Kuiper itself. The FCC approved the launch of 3,236 satellites. Not all of those thousands of satellites have to be launched immediately, however. Amazon is now obligated to launch at least half of the total by 2026 to retain the operating license the FCC has granted the company.
Amazon has said it will invest US $10 billion to build out the constellation. The satellites themselves will circle the Earth in what’s referred to as “low Earth orbit,” or LEO, which is any orbital height below 2000 kilometers. The satellites will operate in the Ka band (26.5 to 40 gigahertz).
A common talking point for companies building satellite broadband systems is that the constellations will be able to provide ubiquitous broadband access. In reality, except for users in remote or rural locations, terrestrial fiber or cellular networks almost always win out. In other words, no one in a city or suburb should be clamoring for satellite broadband.
“If they think they’re competing against terrestrial providers, they’re deluded,” says Tim Farrar, a satellite communications consultant, adding that satellite broadband is for last-resort customers who don’t have any other choice for connectivity.
However, these last-resort customers also include industries that can weather the cost of expensive satellite broadband, such as defense, oil and gas, and aviation. There’s far more money to be made in catering to those industries than in building several thousand satellites just to connect individual rural broadband subscribers.
But what these far-flung industries also increasingly have in common, alongside industries like Earth-imaging and weather-monitoring that also depend on satellite connectivity, is data. Specifically, the need to move, store, and crunch large quantities of data. And that’s something Amazon already offers.
“You could see Project Kuiper being a middleman for getting data into AWS,” says Manchester. “SpaceX owns the space segment, they can get data from point A to point B through space. Amazon can get your data through the network and into their cloud and out to end users.” There are plenty of tech start-ups and other companies that already do machine learning and other data-intensive operations in AWS and could make use of Kuiper to move their data. (Amazon declined to comment on the record about their future plans for Kuiper for this story).
Amazon has also built AWS ground stations that connect satellites directly with the rest of the company’s web service infrastructure. Building and launching satellites is certainly expensive, but the ground stations to connect those satellites are also a not-insignificant cost. Because Amazon already offers access to these ground stations on a per-minute basis, Manchester thinks it’s not unreasonable for the company to expand that offering to Kuiper’s connectivity.
There’s also Blue Origin to consider. While the rocket company owned by Bezos currently has a heavy-lift rocket that could conceivably bring Kuiper satellites to LEO, that could change. The company has at least one such rocket —the New Glenn—in development. Farrar notes that Amazon could spend the next few years in satellite development before it needs to begin launching satellites in earnest, by which point Blue Origin could have a heavy-lift option available.
Farrar says that with an investment of $10 billion, Amazon will need to bring in millions of subscribers to consider the project a financial success. But Amazon can also play a longer game than, say, SpaceX. Whereas the latter is going to be dependent entirely on subscriptions to generate revenue for Starlink, Amazon’s wider business platform means Kuiper is not dependent solely on its own ability to attract users. Plus, Amazon has the resources to make a long-term investment in Kuiper before turning a profit, in a way Starlink cannot.
“They own all these things the other guys don’t,” says Manchester. “In a lot of ways, Amazon has a grander vision. They’re not trying to be a telco.”
Michael Koziol is an associate editor at IEEE Spectrum where he covers everything telecommunications. He graduated from Seattle University with bachelor's degrees in English and physics, and earned his master's degree in science journalism from New York University.