Amazon's LEO ambitions include 5G and $10B price tag
Amazon said it would spend $10 billion to send thousands of low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites into space. The company's goals for the project range from selling Internet connections directly to consumers and businesses to providing 4G and 5G backhaul connections to wireless network operators.
The e-commerce giant disclosed its LEO plans shortly after the FCC with a 5-0 vote approved its application – dubbed Project Kuiper – to send up to 3,236 satellites into space. Amazon now officially joins the likes of SpaceX's Starlink, OneWeb and others in launching LEO satellites for speedier Internet services.
"In addition to providing ground station service directly to customers, Project Kuiper will also provide backhaul solutions for wireless carriers extending LTE and 5G service to new regions," Amazon wrote of its LEO efforts. "Together, these projects will expand broadband access to more households in the United States and around the world."
According to Amazon's filing on the topic with the FCC, the Kuiper system will be deployed in five phases, with services available after the company gets 578 satellites into orbit. FCC rules require Kuiper to launch and operate 50% of its satellites no later than July 30, 2026.
How might Amazon get all those satellites into space? As noted by Gizmodo, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos – the world's richest person – also owns the aerospace firm Blue Origin, which is planning to debut an orbital rocket next year.
There are plenty of unknowns surrounding Amazon and other LEO hopefuls, ranging from the suitability of customers' antenna receivers to the overall number of users the providers' satellite constellations can support.
As for Amazon's plans to provide backhaul to remote 4G and 5G sites, that too remains cloudy. US operators make their services more readily available in dense urban areas. Some operators like AT&T are lining up to test satellite-based services that would obviate the need for cell towers on the ground. That development could reduce some carriers' need for Amazon's Kuiper-supplied backhaul.
Whether the FCC's $9 billion 5G Fun for rural services will change that calculation is also unclear. That program would finance the construction of 5G networks in rural areas at about the same time that Amazon's LEO constellation would be coming online. Thus, 5G providers participating in the FCC's 5G Fund might look toward LEO options for rural backhaul, considering the expense involved in routing fiber into rural areas.
One last unknown in Amazon's agenda is whether the company will put Kuiper into the FCC's $20 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), which will allocate government money toward the construction of rural Internet services. SpaceX's Starlink is reportedly seeking RDOF funds. The FCC has not yet released the full list of companies that have applied for RDOF money; the deadline for applications closed July 15. Already companies including Windstream and Charter have signaled their interest in seeking RDOF cash.