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Amazon targets 'America's heartland' with pitch for Project Kuiper

A top Amazon official asserted that the company's low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite plans would create new jobs for Americans, would improve the country's positioning against rivals and would bring connectivity to underserved and unserved areas.

And what might Amazon's LEO satellites mean for 5G operators?

"I think there are partnerships to be had for Kuiper," said Darren Achord, head of public policy for Amazon's Project Kuiper. "We look forward to partnering with a lot of the providers out there."

Achord's pitch for Project Kuiper (pronounced "ky-per") was mainly targeted at members of the incoming Biden administration. Achord spoke about the company's satellite broadband initiative at the Incompas Policy Summit this week, a trade association that represents communications and technology companies, including Amazon.

Achord explained that Amazon filed its LEO plans with the Trump administration in July 2019, and received approval for a 3,236 constellation of LEO satellites a year later. Now, the company will need to navigate the Biden administration – including Biden's choice of Jessica Rosenworcel as acting head of the FCC – to move forward with its plans.

To do so, Achord argued that Amazon's Project Kuiper would create jobs. He said the effort already counts hundreds of employees, and would need to increase that number in the coming months and years. He said Amazon expects to open a 200,000-square-foot headquarters for Project Kuiper in Redmond, Washington, later this year that would include research-and-development and testing capabilities.

Achord also suggested the company's efforts could help America in the development of space-based technologies in general, which is one of several key economic areas that both the Trump and Biden administrations have focused on in relation to China.

"We all recognize the ability here for US operators to take a leading position in competitiveness but also in space leadership," Achord said.

'Fiber-like' speeds

And Achord said the $10 billion Amazon has pledged to invest into Project Kuiper would also eventually deliver "fiber-like" broadband services to remote corners of America and the world. Indeed, Achord's Incompas presentation was titled "How Amazon will bring broadband to America's heartland."

Achord said Amazon is on the hook to launch 50% of its satellites by 2026. He said the company has already developed a prototype receiver for customers that's roughly the size of a pizza box and can support speeds up to 400 Mbit/s. This, he said, represents a critical milestone for the company as it works to develop affordable equipment for customers to receive Project Kuiper's signals.

Such comments are not a surprise considering executives from SpaceX's Starlink – a Project Kuiper rival that is already offering services to thousands of beta customers – have also pointed to the company's $500 receiver as a critical element in need of improvements.

Achord said Amazon would deploy its satellite constellation across five phases that would eventually cover the US and the Southern Hemisphere via three different "orbital shells" at 366 miles, 379 miles and 391 miles above the surface of the Earth.

Timelines still hazy

However, Achord did not offer any comments on when Amazon might begin launching its satellites or when it might launch commercial services for customers.

However, he did say that Project Kuiper would target areas including transportation, agriculture and emergency services. He said the company could potentially provide backhaul services to 5G operators as well as revenues to fiber providers that could connect its network of ground-based receiving stations.

Achord declared that Project Kuiper might have a leg up on its rivals due to its ability to leverage Amazon's extensive cloud computing capabilities as well as its vast delivery infrastructure.

Project Kuiper's positioning is noteworthy considering rival Starlink – from billionaire Elon Musk's SpaceX – already counts more than 1,000 LEO satellites in orbit and close to $1 billion in funding from the FCC's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). Indeed, Amazon and SpaceX have begun bickering over Starlink's proposed plan to lower the orbits of a portion of its constellation of broadband satellites.

Another possible wrinkle in Project Kuiper's plans could come from OneWeb, which recently received fresh funding from a consortium that includes India's Bharti Airtel and the UK government. OneWeb already operates dozens of LEO satellites.

Sunil Bharti Mittal of Bharti recently suggested OneWeb is just weeks away from inking its own agreements with telecom network operators for services like cellular backhaul and disaster recovery. He also said the company is better positioned for such partnerships because it does not plan to compete with its telecom partners by offering broadband services directly to end users.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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