Amazon Web Services and the Project Kuiper satellite internet venture may be separate domains of Jeff Bezos’ business empire, but even Amazon’s executives admit there’s a lot of potential for synergy.
That’s one reason why the prospects for Project Kuiper shouldn’t be underestimated, even though Amazon is lagging behind SpaceX and OneWeb in the commercial satellite space race.
Project Kuiper announced last year that it intends to put 3,236 satellites into low Earth orbit, creating a constellation that would provide broadband internet access to the billions of people around the world who lack high-speed connections.
“Access to broadband is going to be very close to being a fundamental human need as we move forward. … It’s also a very good business for Amazon,” CEO Jeff Bezos said at last year’s re:MARS conference.
Since then, Amazon has gained the Federal Communications Commission’s go-ahead for its plans — but it hasn’t yet laid out a schedule for launching satellites or starting service. This week, Project Kuiper shared details about the design for its customer terminals — but the satellite design still hasn’t been finalized.
“I’d say we are in the middle of our design phase,” Dave Limp, the senior vice president who’s in charge of Kuiper, said at a TechCrunch space conference.
Satellite internet service is almost certain to be commercially available from SpaceX’s Starlink division and from the Indian-British OneWeb venture before Project Kuiper’s constellation is in place. But Project Kuiper is almost certain to benefit from leveraging connections with Amazon Web Services, the world’s biggest cloud computing platform.
“We’re benefited a bit at Amazon by having this very good and reliable cloud service called AWS,” Limp said. “And we’re able to use many of the capabilities of that to help build out our backplane, help build out our network infrastructure. You not only want to deliver great bandwidth to the customer, but you want great quality of service across the end-to-end network.”
AWS is already working on ways to expand cloud computing to the final frontier. Last year, Amazon Web Services rolled out its Ground Station service for controlling satellites and downloading data from space, and this year it unveiled a new business unit devoted to aerospace and the satellite industry.
Clint Crosier, the former Space Force general who now heads up Amazon’s Aerospace and Satellite Solutions unit, emphasized the importance of space-based cloud services this week during a teleconference with reporters.
“AWS is here in the space business to stay. … I will unveil to you our new motto for the aerospace and satellite team: ‘To the stars through the cloud,'” he said.
For now, AWS sees Project Kuiper as one of a number of partners for space-based cloud services, Crosier told GeekWire.
“Kuiper is a different part of Amazon, but I will tell you, we’ve had a number of meetings with Kuiper, just like we have with lots of other companies that do launch, and command and control, and others,” he said. “And so we might be able to help Kuiper succeed, just the way we’re helping other companies in those areas succeed.”
When it comes to how Project Kuiper will help other parts of Amazon’s business empire, Limp prefers to take a similarly broad view.
“My view, and Amazon’s view, is the more constellations, the better. This is hard, and no one constellation is going to serve the number of unserved peop[le out there today,” he said. “By the way, we also need really successful 5G networks, and we need really successful co-ax [coaxial cable] networks, right? Amazon and our customers benefit from a better internet. We will be one part of that, but I hope there are a dozen other constellations that do it reliably.”
Other highlights from Limp’s TechCrunch talk:
Limp noted that creating a satellite internet constellation doesn’t come cheap. “We’ve already committed $10 billion to this effort. It may require more, but that’s the kind of good project that Amazon can do,” he said. “You know, it’s hard for a company that’s four people in a garage to put up a constellation.”
After dealing with challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, Project Kuiper has begun using a newly remodeled research and development facility in Redmond, Wash., Limp said. “The reason it needed dedicated facilities is, the equipment needed to test and service and build prototypes of this nature is just very different than it would be to build an Echo or even a robot for one of our fulfillment centers,” he said. “We need vacuum chambers, and we need very big antennas to test the radio frequencies.”
Limp said Project Kuiper started the year with about 150 employees. “I think our goal to end the year is about three X that,” he said. “We’re kind of on that path, plus or minus a few people.” Nearly 140 job openings, including 110 in Redmond, are listed on Amazon’s website for Project Kuiper.
In addition to Amazon, Bezos founded a space venture called Blue Origin — but Limp said Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket would be only one of the options for putting Kuiper’s satellites in orbit. “We’re launch-agnostic,” he said. “If somebody has a rocket out there, give us a call.” He even gave a shout-out to the Raptor engines that SpaceX has developed for its Starship super-rocket. “We see a new demonstration of breakthroughs and better engines, whether that’s Raptor or [Blue Origin’s] BE-4, every day,” he said.