When Amazon confirmed it was planning to launch 3,236 broadband internet-beaming satellites into low-Earth orbit, much of the media reported it as if it were a done deal—the latest, inevitable step in the corporation’s quest to conquer commerce, the cloud, and beyond.
Amazon officials said the massive satellite constellation, called Project Kuiper, would one day provide low-latency, high-speed broadband to tens of millions of underserved people around the world, no doubt also connecting them to the wide world of Amazon offerings.
But before Project Kuiper can launch, it must receive approval from the Federal Communications Commission to operate within a certain frequency spectrum. In an application filed this July, Amazon requested a special waiver to FCC rules that would grant it the necessary permission. The problem, though, is that the FCC already handed out licenses to that spectrum years ago to nine other satellite internet companies in a different, more complicated process.
Those companies—including SpaceX and OneWeb—are now lobbying the FCC to deny Amazon’s waiver request, according to FCC records. If successful, they could significantly reduce Project Kuiper’s viability in an already oversaturated market.
Top SpaceX officials have met with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and other agency staff at least three times to lodge in-person complaints about Project Kuiper’s application, according to FCC records. The first meeting came several weeks after Amazon filed its application, the most recent took place on Dec. 2 and 3.
“Amazon’s overt attempt to override long-standing rules would undermine confidence in Commission processes, harm competition, and eliminate broadband options for consumers,” SpaceX lawyers wrote in a Nov. 25 filing. Project Kuiper would have a "significant detrimental impact [on] SpaceX … Amazon’s flawed analysis yields results that defy common sense."
Industry experts said Amazon’s request is unorthodox, but there’s a clear reason why the company has tried a backdoor route to gain access to the coveted spectrum.
If Project Kuiper is made to wait for a second Ka-band licensing round, it could be required to operate as a second-class citizen on the frequencies, forced to stop transmitting whenever one of its satellites interferes with a previously established operator.
FCC officials said the agency has to take into account the rights already acquired by SpaceX, OneWeb, and the other first-round licensees.
“Although we don’t think we have grounds to put [Amazon] in the same processing round … We think that when all is said and done, not everything [proposed by the original licensees] will be built and there will be room for other systems,” the official said.
The burgeoning competition to dominate satellite internet presents an unprecedented scenario for the agencies regulating access to space.
In total, humans have launched fewer than 9,000 objects into space and only 5,400 satellites are still orbiting Earth, about half of which are active. The massive constellations proposed by SpaceX, Amazon, and others would dramatically increase that number to the point where astronomers are concerned satellites will cloud out the night sky. Putting huge numbers of satellites into low-Earth orbit would also make a collision with space junk more likely, and potentially more devastating.
Space is big, so there will be room for all the proposed satellites in orbit. But the valuable frequencies needed to transmit data is much more restricted. Industry experts say the economics of satellite broadband internet are already so difficult that only a few, early entrants to the market are likely to survive, if any of them do.
“I’d sort of written Amazon off as not being viable simply because they hadn’t gotten started and these other guys—SpaceX, OneWeb—are already putting satellites up,” Roger Rusch, a satellite and telecommunications consultant with TelAstra told Motherboard. “By the time Amazon gets started, they’re already probably going to be years behind them.
SpaceX, which is owned by Elon Musk, has launched 120 out of the 12,000 low-Earth-orbit satellites it’s received FCC approval to operate and requested permission for 30,000 more.
With plans to launch 1,440 more in 2020, the company hopes to begin providing internet service around the world by the end of next year. Its actions in the Kuiper case indicate it’s anxious to protect that investment.
SpaceX officials declined to speak on the record.
As Christian Davenport documented in his book “The Space Barons,” SpaceX’s success breaking into the commercial space industry has been due in large part to Musk’s willingness to wage regulatory and legal wars against entrenched, better-financed competitors, as well as federal agencies. And there is no love lost between him and Bezos, who separately from Amazon owns the space launch company Blue Origin.
"It would be a big deal for the FCC to say ‘Oh yeah, we’re just going to let you get the spectrum three years later and not jump through the hoops that everyone else has done"
But this time, SpaceX has a number of allies.
OneWeb, which has FCC approval for 720 satellites and has requested permission for 1,260 more, has filed its own petition for the FCC to deny Amazon’s application and its lobbyists met with FCC staff on Oct. 15 to discuss Project Kuiper, according to FCC records. Other companies that were part of the FCC’s first licensing round for this spectrum band have also filed petitions to deny, including Telesat Canada, Theia Holdings, and Iridium Communications.
OneWeb has previously protested the FCC’s decision to allow SpaceX to add satellites in this spectrum, but the Amazon request is more complicated.
The FCC began accepting license applications for the Ka-band frequencies in question in July 2016, with an application deadline in November of that year. Twelve companies applied, with two later pulling out. The agency awarded licenses to nine applicants.
Amazon wasn’t one of the original licensees. It didn’t submit its application until nearly three years after the deadline, along with the request for a special waiver to join on equal footing with the original licensees
“It would be a big deal for the FCC to say ‘Oh yeah, we’re just going to let you get the spectrum three years later and not jump through the hoops that everyone else has done,’” Janice Starzyk, vice president of commercial space for the consultancy Bryce Space and Technology, told Motherboard. “There would have to be major justification for that.”
In its application, Amazon argued that the waiver is appropriate because its constellation will be in the public interest and technological advances will better enable Kuiper satellites to share frequencies already licensed to other companies.
Opinions differ between consultants and the companies involved as to whether the level of coordination Amazon is proposing is feasible either technically or economically.
SpaceX, OneWeb, and the others have argued that Project Kuiper would significantly interfere with the careful cooperation agreements they’re already negotiating, akin to throwing 3,236 new balls of a different shape at a juggler mid-act.
“This exponentially increases the complexity of the software,” Rusch said. “You can’t say anything is impossible, but I would say this is a challenge that would probably be overwhelming—to have a lot of systems up there using the same frequency.”
Amazon declined an interview request, but a spokesperson said, “We look forward to continued engagement with the FCC regarding our license application. Amazon is focused on innovating on behalf of our customers, including realizing our vision for Project Kuiper to deliver low cost, high-speed broadband services to the tens of millions of people who live in unserved and underserved communities around the world.”