Amazon’s Project Kuiper hasn’t yet said when it’ll start launching satellites or providing broadband internet access from above, but it is sharing details about how customers will get their data.
The $10 billion project, which aims to put more than 3,200 satellites into low Earth orbit, will use an innovative type of phased-array antenna that overlays one set of tiny elements on top of another set, Amazon said today in a blog posting. “This has never been accomplished in the Ka-band,” the company said.
Amazon says the innovation should result in a lightweight, low-cost customer terminal with an antenna that’s only 12 inches (30 centimeters) wide. The hardware is being developed primarily at Project Kuiper’s research and development facility in Redmond, Wash.
“If you want to make a difference for unserved and underserved communities, you need to deliver service at a price that makes sense for customers,” said Rajeev Badyal, vice president of technology for Project Kuiper at Amazon. “This simple fact inspired one of our key tenets for Kuiper: to invent a light, compact phased-array antenna that would allow us to produce an affordable customer terminal.”
Amazon didn’t specify precisely how affordable the terminal would be, or how much Kuiper’s broadband internet service would cost. However, it said reducing the area of the antenna by an order of magnitude would “reduce production costs by an equal measure.”
Project Kuiper received approval from the Federal Communications Commission in July for a system that would make use of two separate sets of frequencies in the Ka-band for sending data to and from its satellite constellation. Usually, such an arrangement would require setting up separate antennas, side by side, for transmitting and receiving data. Overlaying the two sets of arrays reduces the terminal’s size and weight.
The flat-panel system uses digital and analog components to steer the Ka-band beams toward satellites passing overhead, Amazon said.
In today’s update, Amazon said its prototype terminal has handled data transfers ranging as high as 400 megabits per second (Mbps) — and has been able to stream 4K-quality video from a geostationary satellite during field tests. “Performance will continue to improve in future iterations,” Amazon said.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Kuiper will deliver 400Mbps service to customers when the project goes commercial, sometime between now and 2026. That’ll be dependent on the capabilities of the satellite constellation, and Amazon hasn’t yet described its satellite design in detail.
Project Kuiper is playing a game of catchup with other satellite broadband ventures: SpaceX’s Starlink project is the furthest along, with nearly 1,000 satellites already launched and a “Better Than Nothing” public beta trial underway. Starlink’s beta users are said to be paying $99 a month, plus a one-time equipment fee of $499 for a terminal, tripod and router.
In its recent award of funding for rural internet connectivity, the FCC suggested that SpaceX should be able to provide data transfer speeds in excess of 100 Mbps. Some beta users are reporting more than 160 Mbps, and over the longer term, Starlink is targeting gigabit speeds.
Another rival in the mega-constellation space race is OneWeb, which recently emerged from bankruptcy under new ownership and is planning to have 36 more satellites sent to low Earth orbit, or LEO, this week.
OneWeb’s current schedule calls for service to begin in northern latitudes by late 2021, with global coverage by mid-2022.
Canada’s largest satellite operator, Telesat, is also working on LEO internet service.
All of these ventures say they want to furnish broadband internet service for the billions of people around the world who are currently underserved. But Project Kuiper has the inside track for addressing Amazon’s needs when it comes to cloud computing services, its streaming-video platform and other online offerings.
Who knows? Maybe Kuiper’s broadband internet service will someday come bundled with Amazon Prime.