Amazon has applied to the FCC to increase its constellation to 7,774 satellites, which would allow it to cover regions further north and south, including Alaska, as Starlink does.
There are riches to be had: SpaceX currently charges $110 a month to access Starlink, with an up-front cost of $599 for an antenna to connect to the satellites. According to a letter to shareholders last year, Amazon is spending “over $10 billion” to develop Kuiper, with more than 1,000 employees working on the project. Andy Jassy, Amazon’s current CEO, has said that Kuiper has a chance of becoming a “fourth pillar” for the company, alongside its retail marketplace, Amazon Prime, and its widely used cloud computing service, Amazon Web Services
“Amazon’s business model relies on people having internet connectivity,” says Shagun Sachdeva, an industry expert at the space investment firm Kosmic Apple in France. “It makes a lot of sense for them to have this constellation to provide connectivity.”
Amazon is not yet disclosing the pricing of its service but has previously said a goal is to “bridge the digital divide” by bringing fast and affordable broadband to “underserved communities,” an ambition Starlink has also professed. But whether costs will ever get low enough for that to be achievable remains to be seen. “Costs will come down, but to what extent is really the question,” says Sachdeva. On March 14, the company revealed it was producing its own antennas at a cost of $400 each, although a retail cost has not yet been revealed.
Amazon has said it can offer speeds of up to one gigabit per second, and bandwidth of one terabit per satellite. Those are similar to Starlink’s numbers, and the two services seem fairly similar overall. The key difference is that Starlink is operational, and has been for years, whereas Amazon does not plan to start offering Kuiper as a service until the latter half of 2024, giving SpaceX a considerable head start to attract users and secure contracts.
There remain concerns, too, about space junk and the impact on ground-based astronomy. Before 2019 there were only about 3,000 active satellites in space. SpaceX and Amazon by themselves could increase that number to 20,000 by the end of this decade. Tracking large numbers of moving objects in orbit—and making sure they don’t collide with one another—is a headache.
“I’m not satisfied that we can safely sustain [even] one of these systems in orbit,” says Hugh Lewis, a space debris expert at the University of Southampton in the UK, who has tracked thousands of close calls between Starlink, OneWeb, and other satellites. “They’re continually rolling the dice. At some point, in spite of all their best efforts, I think there will be a collision.”
Amazon’s spokesperson said the company had “designed our system and operational parameters with space safety in mind.” When satellites finish their mission, the spokesperson added, they will be removed from orbit within one year using onboard thrusters, and in the case of satellite failure, atmospheric drag will “help ensure any remaining satellites will deorbit naturally.”