Is Amazon’s Satellite Ground Station Service Ready for Primetime?

Amazon Web Services has promised immediate service but FCC filings suggest the company has yet to obtain the long-term licenses necessary to operate

Photograph of an Amazon Web Services satellite during sunset.
Photo: Amazon
Advertisement

When Amazon Web Services (AWS) announced the general availability of its satellite Ground Station service last month, it claimed that operators switching to its facilities could control satellites and “download, process, store, analyze, and act upon satellite data quicker with substantial cost savings.” Amazon announced eight satellite customers and partners, saying that Ground Station would be available immediately in the United States, with service in other countries rolling out in the next 12 months.

However, a review of U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) filings suggests that the full Ground Station experience is currently only available to a single company, with two more startups enjoying partial service. And while Amazon has earned a reputation for moving aggressively into new markets, the technology giant also made several regulatory missteps that suggest it’s still finding its way in the world of satellite operations.

Satellite owners need to be able to communicate with their spacecraft in orbit, whether to download data and messages, upload new instructions, or command the spacecraft to move out of the way of debris.

Operators of large telecommunications satellites in distant geostationary orbits have generally owned and managed their own ground stations (also called earth stations). But doing so is far too expensive for most space startups, many of which have just one or two satellites in low earth orbits. Instead, these companies generally lease time on antennas as needed, at ground stations around the world.

Amazon’s Ground Station service will offer pay-as-you-go access to its own (planned) global network of antennas, aiming to reduce ground station expenses to startups by up to 80 percent. And because the new antennas will be co-located with Amazon’s data centers, the company also hopes to reduce the time it takes for satellite data to be processed, analyzed, and forwarded to operators and their clients.

“One of the big challenges now with remote sensing is that the time from capturing imagery to the time the customers get their images is too long,” says Payam Banazadeh, CEO of earth observation radar company Capella Space. “We’re trying to reduce this latency, at some point to real time. I think AWS Ground Station will be fantastic and allow us to move forward on that path.”

Capella is one of eight companies that AWS named in its launch press release for Ground Station. However, Amazon is not currently able to transmit data to the startup’s satellite. This has nothing to do with a lack of technology, and everything to do with paperwork.

The FCC regulates communications between satellites and US earth stations in order to avoid interference that could interrupt services or put astronauts at risk.

Neither Amazon nor AWS have asked permission from the FCC to transmit from any ground stations. However, Spectrum used an FCC geographic look-up tool to search at the latitude and longitude of Amazon’s US data centers. This revealed two companies that had submitted ground station applications at two of Amazon’s facilities. 

In August 2018, Maris Developments LLC applied for a “license for transmit/receive earth stations that will support satellite launch services for [a] client base” at an Amazon data center in Boardman, Oregon. Meanwhile, Haras Developments LLC made a very similar request for another Amazon data center in Kileville, Ohio.

Both companies were incorporated on the same day in Delaware, a common location for shell companies given the state’s strict corporate privacy rules. Both companies applied for a license to communicate with US-licensed, earth exploration satellites from Maxar Technologies, another company mentioned in Amazon’s press release.

Neither of those applications have yet been granted, which is not too surprising given that the FCC has been inundated with requests from new space companies and is operating with a considerable backlog.

In the meantime, both Haras and Maris have been requesting temporary authority to communicate with satellites from DigitalGlobe and two other earth imaging companies, BlackSky Global and Planet Labs, that were not referenced in the press release.

So far, both locations have received temporary permission to communicate with DigitalGlobe’s satellites, but only the Ohio site can connect to BlackSky and Planet satellites. Capella’s Banazadeh confirmed that AWS has yet to uplink any data to its satellite but said that a license was “in the works and should be granted soon.”

This probably refers to an application that Capella itself made in March for a temporary experimental license to use Amazon’s Boardman and Kileville earth stations. Spectrum could not find any FCC applications from Haras, Maris, or Amazon for long-term communications with Capella, or the other six companies mentioned in its recent press release.

An AWS spokesperson told Spectrum: “We have secured authority from spectrum regulatory organizations to operate our earth stations in the United States, and are working closely with regulatory organizations worldwide to bring additional AWS Ground Station locations online and help the commercial space industry flourish. In every location we operate, we comply with local laws and regulations.”

Even companies for which AWS Ground does have a license are not yet relying on the company. A BlackSky spokesperson said that AWS’s earth station network “complements” four of its own stations, while Planet is not currently using the AWS Ground Station service at all.

Some caution is sensible, as Amazon appears to be still gaining familiarity with satellite operations. Both Haras and Maris seem to have struggled with the FCC’s experimental licensing system.

One application, to “test and demonstrate various wireless technologies” at the Ohio facility, was initially denied because it could have caused interference with NASA operations on the International Space Station. AWS subsequently coordinated with NASA and received permission for its tests.

Another, in Oregon, was withdrawn after lengthy correspondence with the FCC revealed that Amazon did not realize it only needed permission to transmit data to satellites, not receive data from them.

There is nothing to suggest that AWS Ground Station will not eventually receive permission from the FCC to operate its Ohio and Oregon facilities with all the satellites mentioned in its press release, nor that 10 more global ground stations will not come online at some point this year, as planned.

In fact, Spectrum understands that Amazon is deliberately taking a measured approach to its spectrum applications, following the advice of law firms that specialize in satellite regulation. 

But announcing “general availability” of a service that appears to be operating with just one of eight launch partners suggests that AWS Ground Station may still be a step or two behind its public pronouncements.

The Tech Alert Newsletter

Receive latest technology science and technology news & analysis from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.

About the Tech Talk blog

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.