Race For Internet From Space: Greenlight For Amazon’s 'Project Kuiper' Pits It Against SpaceX, OneWeb

Karan Kamble

Aug 04, 2020, 12:28 PM | Updated 12:28 PM IST

Representative picture: communication tower reaching up to the skies
Representative picture: communication tower reaching up to the skies
  • Global players Amazon and SpaceX are among those who want to provide internet from space.
  • The prospect is of fast, reliable, and affordable internet in places where internet is either unreliable or unavailable.
  • The pandemic has pushed up high-speed, reliable internet in importance greatly.
  • Soon, you might look up to the skies and see “star” constellations that don’t naturally belong there, but instead, to Earth, and in particular, big businesses.

    After SpaceX, it’s now Amazon’s turn to send satellites into space with the goal of providing fast, reliable, and affordable broadband internet access.

    The American technology giant received the green light on 30 July to go ahead with deploying and operating its planned constellation of 3,236 satellites.

    The approval granted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), for now, limits broadband access to the United States.

    Amazon has said it will invest more than $10 billion (over Rs 7,500 crore) on this initiative they are calling “Project Kuiper”.

    The name is inspired by the father of planetary science, Gerard Kuiper, who is the eponymous namesake of the Kuiper belt — a ring of icy objects that go around the Sun in an orbit just beyond the planet Neptune.

    Fast and reliable internet has assumed greater importance this year as the 2020 coronavirus outbreak has compelled people to operate from home as much as possible.

    However, there are large parts of the world where access to the internet is either unreliable or not available at all.

    According to a United Nations estimate, almost 400 crore people are underserved.

    With its satellite network, Amazon says it can cover a latitude range from 56 degrees north to 56 degrees south, covering about 95 per cent of the world’s population.

    When Amazon had pitched this project last spring, they may not have foreseen how the need for broadband internet access will go from important to critical in a span of one year.

    This may offer additional motivation for the company to race ahead with Project Kuiper.

    What will be the cost of Amazon's internet beamed from space? For now, the company’s Vice-President of Technology for Project Kuiper, Rajeev Badyal, says “a price that makes sense for customers”.

    That may not be saying much, but, like any business, Amazon will have to arrive at a price point that makes sense for it, too.

    Besides, Amazon’s Project Kuiper is not without competition.

    SpaceX has similar plans with its Starlink satellite internet service.

    Elon Musk’s company hopes to put 12,000 small satellites in space (nearly four times the number planned by Amazon).

    Musk received the nod for his venture in 2018.

    More than 500 Starlink satellites are already up there (they were photobombing beautiful pictures of comet Neowise recently).

    They were put in orbit in batches of 60 satellites at a time, launched at a rate of about a batch a month this past year.

    However, work is under way to build the equally important ground stations and user terminals necessary for people to connect to satellite internet.

    SpaceX’s plan is to offer internet service to northern US and southern Canada before the end of this year, and expand it to near-global coverage in 2021.

    The Starlink project will cost Musk’s company more than $10 billion — the figure that Amazon, too, says it will invest in its Project Kuiper.

    If customers around the world lap up this satellite-based internet service, there could be a $1 trillion market up for grabs.

    Going by the word of SpaceX, their planned service has found “extraordinary demand” with about 700,000 people in the US indicating interest.

    They recently filed a request with the FCC to authorise an increase in the number of user terminals from 1 million to 5 million.

    With SpaceX already boasting of other remarkable technological achievements, such as most recently shuttling American astronauts to and from the International Space Station, Amazon will have to lift its game to be counted as a top choice.

    In fact, Amazon will be challenging SpaceX even in the space exploration arena with its aerospace company, Blue Origin.

    They say they plan to “build a road for space” with the help of reusable launch vehicles.

    Here too, SpaceX already has its nose ahead — though Amazon says “we are not in a race”.

    OneWeb is another space broadband contender, but the company has had ebbs and flows in its fortunes.

    They have 74 satellites up in orbit with the latest launch in March involving shipping 34 satellites from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

    However, pandemic-induced funding troubles with main investor Softbank put its future launches in a shadow and led it to file for bankruptcy in a New York court a week after launch.

    OneWeb was resuscitated when the United Kingdom government, looking to part with the European Union's satellite-based navigation system Galileo, bought a $500 million stake in the company.

    India’s Bharti Global, a major mobile operator in the world, was part of this bidding consortium with the UK government.

    This investment may help OneWeb get back up on its feet and resume building and launching its planned network of 648 satellites.

    Amazon will be joining this race for the internet from space.

    The FCC order for Amazon requires that the company launches half of its satellite fleet by 30 July 2026 and the rest no later than 2029.

    In addition to selling broadband internet services, Amazon is aiming to provide 4G and 5G backhaul connections to wireless operators.

    The Kuiper system will be deployed in five phases, with services beginning after 578 satellites have been launched.

    The design and testing will take place at an upcoming Amazon R&D facility in Redmond, Washington, set to become the Kuiper headquarters.

    Broadband internet is currently made available courtesy underground cables.

    Expanding the reach would involve looping the whole Earth with these cables.

    This is not just tedious and virtually impractical to do — some areas are extraordinarily out of reach — it also doesn’t guarantee reliable internet.

    Satellite internet helps us go around this problem.

    However, how far up should the satellite be to get us the best internet connectivity?

    There is a need here to strike a balance.

    The higher up the satellite, the wider is the net for data transmission over Earth.

    But also, the lag is greater since data takes a longer time to traverse this distance — high-earth orbits are in the range of about 36,000 km away.

    On the other hand, the lower the satellite in orbit, the narrower is the reach (still wider than terrestrial towers); however, data transmission is faster.

    Projects like Starlink and Kuiper are trying to achieve a balance by keeping their satellite in low-earth orbit (160 km to 1,000 km range) but also have a string of them, each linked with the other, so that together they appear to work as one big satellite (wide reach) transmitting data quickly (closer to Earth).

    Building and launching satellites and getting them to work in space without much of a hassle requires considerable technology expertise and is a price prospect; however, the expected large market demand for such internet service would make the investment worthwhile over a longer time frame.

    Karan Kamble writes on science and technology. He occasionally wears the hat of a video anchor for Swarajya's online video programmes.

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