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Amazon joins race to provide global internet access via space

Image credit: Mohamed Ahmed Soliman | Dreamstime.com

Amazon plans to launch 3,236 satellites into Earth's orbit to provide internet to ‘unserved and underserved communities around the world’, joining SpaceX, One Web and Facebook in the race to create space-based internet services.

The initiative, known as Project Kuiper, came into the limelight after tech news company GeekWire found that Kuiper Systems LLC recently made three sets of filings with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the international organisation in charge of coordinating satellite orbits.

The filings lay out a plan to put 3,236 satellites in low Earth orbit — including 784 satellites at an altitude of 367 miles (590km); 1,296 satellites at a height of 379 miles (610km); and 1,156 satellites in 391-mile (630km) orbits.

In response to the Seattle-based GeekWire’s inquiries, Amazon confirmed that Kuiper Systems is one of its latest projects.

“Project Kuiper is a new initiative to launch a constellation of Low Earth Orbit satellites that will provide low-latency, high-speed broadband connectivity to unserved and underserved communities around the world,” a spokesperson from Amazon said.

“This is a long-term project that envisions serving tens of millions of people who lack basic access to broadband internet. We look forward to partnering on this initiative with companies that share this common vision.”

Amazon said it intends to use the project to deliver “low-latency, high-speed broadband connectivity to unserved and underserved communities.” The company also describes Project Kuiper as a “long-term” project, suggesting it could be years before anyone can post memes via Amazon’s satellites.

The Seattle-based company also said it is likely to spend billions of dollars on the project and could reap billions of dollars in revenue once the satellites go into commercial service.

Although Amazon has yet to announce whether it intends to build its own satellites or buy them from a third party and decide on how it will launch them into orbit, a spokesperson from the company said that it “will of course look at all options”.

A composite photo from the Suomi National Polar-Orbiting Partnership satellite shows North America at night

A composite photo from the Suomi National Polar-Orbiting Partnership satellite shows North America at night; Nasa

Image credit: NASA / NOAA Photo

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has a well-known interest in space after founding private space firm Blue Origin, with the new project being the latest in a string of companies with plans to use a network of thousands of satellites to offer broadband around the world.

Blue Origin has already signed contracts for a multi-launch agreement with Telesat – another company that’s developing a low Earth orbit constellation of satellites that will deliver fibre-like broadband services across the globe.

As private companies look to commercialise space, high-speed internet is among the prospects that offer the highest profits in the short term, while providing necessary services to get the remaining 3.8 billion people who don’t have access to the internet online.

In February, communications company OneWeb, another company that’s expecting to create a network of satellites to provide high-speed internet access, successfully launched its first satellites.

According to Crunchbase, the company has raised at least US $3bn (£2.3bn), from investors to create the satellites, including Virgin, Coca-Cola and the Bharti Group.

SpaceX also has designs on creating a global satellite network, in addition to its leading position as a launch services provider for companies looking to access outer space.

In December, the company set out to raise another $500m (£383m) to support its Starlink programme, which would create a network of 11,000 satellites to cover the globe with internet connectivity.

Furthermore, to date, the company has launched just two prototype satellites, despite earlier reports stating that SpaceX projected it would have 400 satellites in orbit by the end of 2018.

Finally, Facebook has been working on satellite capabilities of its own. In a May report, the IEEE Spectrum laid out how Facebook had set up a small subsidiary called PointView Tech, which was developing a new satellite called Athena that could deliver data 10 times faster than SpaceX’s Starlink satellites.

In October 2018, Amazon announced it is opening a new office in Manchester as part of plans to create more than 1,000 ‘Silicon Valley’ research and development jobs across the UK.

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