Technology

FCC chief seeks conditional approval for Amazon’s Project Kuiper broadband satellite network

Ajit Pai
Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, speaks at CES 2020 in Las Vegas in January. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

The Federal Communications Commission’s chairman, Ajit Pai, says he’s proposing approval of Amazon’s plan to put more than 3,200 satellites into low Earth orbit for a broadband internet constellation known as Project Kuiper … with conditions.

In a tweet, Pai said he shared his proposal today with colleagues on the commission:

The full commission would have to vote to approve the Project Kuiper application, which has been in the works for the past year. But support from Pai, who was chosen by President Donald Trump to lead the five-member commission in 2017, serves as a strong sign that conditional approval will ultimately be granted.

Amazon’s senior vice president of devices and services, Dave Limp, hailed Pai’s positive comments.

““The need for reliable, affordable broadband has never been more apparent. There are still too many communities where Internet access is unreliable or prohibitively expensive, and we see Project Kuiper as a way to help close this gap for unserved and underserved communities around the world,” Limp said in a statement emailed to GeekWire. “We appreciate that Chairman Pai shares our commitment to the issue, and look forward to working with the commission as it reviews the proposal.”

Pai’s tweet didn’t signal what sorts of conditions Amazon may have to comply with, but there are lots of potential issues to address.

Amazon is a relative latecomer to the satellite broadband race, and other players — led by SpaceX, which has already put more than 500 satellites into orbit for its rival Starlink broadband network — have urged the FCC to hold off on expediting Amazon’s application.

In January, Amazon acknowledged that it had not yet finalized the materials and components to be used for Project Kuiper’s satellites, and for that reason could not submit a detailed analysis of orbital debris risks and how to mitigate them. At the time, Amazon suggested that the FCC could make its approval conditional on the submission and approval of such an analysis. It’s possible that Pai decided to take Amazon up on that suggestion.

Other issues have to do with how Amazon’s satellite design will address concerns about interference with astronomical observations; and how all the constellations currently being planned in non-geostationary satellite orbits, or NGSO — including Starlink and Kuiper as well as OneWeb and Telesat — can work together to minimize collision risks.

Amazon hasn’t yet publicly discussed how Project Kuiper’s satellites will be launched into space, or when it intends to begin commercial service. Nevertheless, apparent progress on Project Kuiper’s application, coupled with OneWeb’s apparent revival from bankruptcy, is likely to turn up the competitive heat on SpaceX.

At last year’s GeekWire Summit, Limp highlighted Project Kuiper’s potential to extend broadband internet service to the billions who are currently underserved — but he also noted that the venture had valuable synergies with Amazon’s other lines of business, conceivably ranging from Amazon Web Services’ cloud computing platform to the streaming video services offered by Amazon Prime and Twitch.

“Obviously, more people can shop, which we like,” he said, “and more people can get access to things like Alexa, and more developers can get access to things like AWS.”



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