The FCC has approved Amazon's plan for its Kuiper satellite constellation. Here's what that means.

Amazon has official approval to deploy a new satellite constellation for broadband service.

In late July, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates telecommunications services in the United States, voted 5-0 to allow the e-commerce company to deploy and operate a constellation of 3,236 satellites. Amazon first announced the initiative, called Kuiper, last year.

The move not only expands Amazon’s business into internet services, but also further ramps up a competition to bring swift internet to isolated areas. SpaceX has already begun deploying hundreds of Starlink satellites, which could eventually number in the tens of thousands, to tackle the business opportunity. Other competitors in the market include Boeing, the European company Thales Alenia and Telesat Canada.

In granting the application to Amazon, the FCC said in its notes, it denied petitions to dismiss or defer the constellation filed by Luxembourg-based SES, Telesat Canada, and other companies. “We conclude that grant of Kuiper’s application would advance the public interest by authorizing a system designed to increase the availability of high-speed broadband service to consumers, government and businesses,” the FCC said in its statement.

The announcement came after several months of quarantines or semi-quarantines around the world in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic, which shut down much of the United States in mid-March and continues to ripple across the world. With more people than ever working from home, Amazon positioned reliable and speedy Internet access as an issue that is rapidly becoming more important.

“We have heard so many stories lately about people who are unable to do their job or complete schoolwork because they don’t have reliable internet at home,” Dave Limp, Amazon’s senior vice president, said in a company statement. “There are still too many places where broadband access is unreliable, or where it doesn’t exist at all. Kuiper will change that. Our $10 billion investment will create jobs and infrastructure around the United States that will help us close this gap.”

Besides providing ground-station service for customers, Kuiper will also provide backhaul (the side of the network that communicates with the internet) for the 5G deployment that continues across the United States. 5G is a faster mobile protocol that will allow for the spread of the Internet of Things, among other benefits.

The proposed constellation includes 3,236 satellites at altitudes of roughly 365 miles, 380 miles and 390 miles (590 kilometers, 610 km and 630 km). Kuiper would serve customers between 56 degrees north (the horizontal line passing through Alaska, Canada and Scotland) and 56 degrees south (cutting off only Antarctica), the FCC documents show. The constellation would rely on three frequency ranges: 17.7 to 18.6 GHz, 18.8 to 20.2 Ghz and 27.5 to 30.0 GHz, all of which are in the so-called Ka-band of frequencies. Service could begin once just 578 satellites are in orbit.

The Kuiper project plans dictate deorbiting the satellites within 355 days of mission completion, which is far more rapid than the 25-year standard from NASA, the FCC said. That said, Amazon has not yet completed its casualty risk analysis as required under regulations, which SpaceX flagged with the FCC. The FCC said the Kuiper approval is conditional on meeting these requirements at a later date.

The FCC papers also include technical details on some of the spectrum disputes and sharing arrangements between different players in the broadband internet space, noting that Kuiper met the requirements in some cases and in others, Kuiper did not and they were not authorized to use that slice of the spectrum. In some cases, waivers were granted when they served the public interest, the FCC added.


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