Amazon launches first internet service satellites in challenge to Elon Musk’s Starlink

Project Kuiper’s mission is to provide fast and affordable broadband internet to underserved communities

Amazon has launched its first pair of satellites for its global orbital internet service, in a direct challenge to Elon Musk’s Starlink.

The two satellites for the company’s Project Kuiper were carried by an Atlas V rocket, operated by Boeing and Lockheed Martin joint venture United Launch Alliance, from Cape Canaveral in Florida on Friday.

Amazon made its first contact with the satellites about an hour later, the Seattle-based company said.

“We’ve done extensive testing here in our lab and have a high degree of confidence in our satellite design, but there’s no substitute for on-orbit testing,” Rajeev Badyal, Project Kuiper’s vice president of technology, said on Amazon’s website.

Amazon said its first production satellites are on track for launch in the first half of 2024, with beta testing with early commercial customers expected by the end of next year, the company said.

“This is Amazon’s first time putting satellites into space, and we’re going to learn an incredible amount regardless of how the mission unfolds.”

Project Kuiper is an initiative to increase global broadband access through a constellation of 3,236 satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO), with a mission is to bring “fast,affordable broadband to unserved and underserved communities around the world”, according to Amazon.

That is compared to Starlink’s 5,222 deployed satellites, of which 4,265 are operational, according to latest data from astronomer Jonathan McDowell, who tracks the Starlink constellation on his website.

These include Starshield satellites, a derivative of Starlink designed for military or government purposes.

LEOs orbit at heights of between 200km and 2,000km. For perspective, the International Space Station is at 408km, while the Hubble Space Telescope is at 547km.

Amazon’s plan is to deploy Project Kuiper to “many countries” around the world, which would serve “billions of people … [who] don’t have reliable access to broadband”.

“Poor connectivity means limited access to modern communications, education, health services and other important resources, which can create an economic disadvantage for unserved and underserved communities,” Amazon said on its website.

The project is targeting a wide base of users, including schools, hospitals, businesses, government agencies and others operating “in places without reliable connectivity”, it said.

Amazon will be offering three tiers of speeds to customers – an ultra-compact model with speeds of up to 100Mbps, a standard option with up to 400 Mbps and the largest model, intended for enterprise, government and telecoms applications, with up to 1Gbps.

“We’re designing the system to balance performance and affordability, and we plan to provide choice and flexibility by offering a range of options for customers,” Amazon said.

Starlink, meanwhile, has four plans on offer, and says users can expect to experience download speeds of up to 220Mbps, according to its website. The company, which is a unit of SpaceX, intends to reach speeds of up to 1Gbps.

Starlink began launching satellites in 2019. Earlier that year, Project Kuiper was announced, with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos saying the company plans to spend billions on it.

Satellites can also provide internet access even in the most remote areas, compared to using a 5G or broadband connection, which requires a user to be within range of a cell tower.

Amazon and Starlink are part of the growing satellite internet sector: China is planning to launch 13,000 satellites as part of its GuoWang constellation, while Canada’s Telesat and German start-up Rivada are planning to add 300 and 600, respectively.

These are in addition to the 300 to 500 satellites eyed by the US military’s Space Development Agency and the 170 from the EU’s Iris initiative.

Amazon said it will be testing Project Kuiper’s networking hardware and software “to refine how they support the flow of data through the Kuiper System and Amazon Web Services”.

“Gateway antennae positioned around the world will track and communicate with the satellites and also connect the Kuiper System to the internet,” it said.

“As the mission progresses, we will test the network from end to end, sending data back and forth between the internet, our ground gateways, the satellites and our customer terminals.”


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