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Amazon's Dave Limp
Dave Limp, Amazon’s devices and services chief, chats with GeekWire co-founder Todd Bishop during the GeekWire Summit. (Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire)

Why is Amazon planning to put thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit? Part of the motivation is to expand Amazon’s footprint in online sales and cloud computing services, says Dave Limp, the company’s devices and services chief.

During a fireside chat at this week’s GeekWire Summit in Seattle, Limp said the primary motivation for Project Kuiper, Amazon’s future satellite mega-satellite constellation, is to offer broadband internet access to the billions of people who are currently underserved. That echoes what Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said at the re:MARS conference in June when he talked about Project Kuiper’s genesis.

Building basic infrastructure is also the justification for Amazon’s newly announced effort to build a low-bandwidth, intermediate-range wireless network known as Sidewalk. Project Sidewalk will connect devices that take advantage of the Internet of Things — ranging from appliances to smart lights and dog collars.

Limp made clear this week that providing connectivity isn’t a purely philanthropic effort. He said that faster, wider broadband access can boost retail markets as well as the reach of Amazon Web Services, or AWS, the company’s cloud platform.

Here’s how Limp explained the business case at the GeekWire Summit:

“There are lots of places on Earth that are incredibly well-served by wireless. But when you map it out, and we have done this pretty carefully, there are lots of blank spots. And by the way, immediately your mind goes, ‘Oh, well, there’s a big blank spot in sub-Saharan Africa.’ You don’t have to go that far.

“You just have to go to Eastern Washington, and you can find lots of areas where connectivity is very difficult to get. And if you do have connectivity, it’s not the connectivity that we’re now beginning to take for granted. It’s running off legacy copper, in many instances, or off satellite systems that, because of the constraints on how to get things to space, have very long latency and lower bandwidth.

“If you think about Amazon and what we want to do in the future, we want everybody connected. A, it’s good for society, and B, it also will be good for Amazon. Obviously, more people can shop, which we like, and more people can get access to things like Alexa, and more developers can get access to things like AWS.

“So, connectivity is kind of a primitive, first and foremost, but it’s getting close to a human right. If you were writing a new Bill of Rights today, you might put connectivity in it. It’s close to that. [There are] lots of things small companies can do. They’re nimble, they’re in a garage, they can invent super-fast. [But] there are some things that, for bigger companies — it’s on our shoulders to solve. This is an example of one of those.

“To solve that connectivity … on a global basis, we’re going to have to put 3,236 satellites up. That’s going to take billions and billions of dollars of capital. And by the way, it’s high risk. We’ve got a lot of invention ahead of us. But I like that we’re willing to take on the responsibility for trying to do that. I think we can also turn it into a good business. That’s not lost on us. But when you can get the overlap of the Venn diagrams of “good businesses” with “greater good,” those are the things you want to work on.

“Kindle was that way for me. That’s why I came to Amazon. If we can help with literacy and reading in the world, and also turn it into a pretty good business, that’s a good job to have.”

Limp and other executives at Amazon and Project Kuiper have been meeting with regulatory officials to work out the details for Project Kuiper, according to recent filings with the Federal Communications Commission. Amazon hasn’t yet gone public with its timetable for satellite deployment, and it’s clear that providing Project Kuiper connectivity is at least a couple of years away. (More than 100 job openings for the project have been posted to Amazon’s website, with nearly all those jobs based in Bellevue, Wash.)

Bezos has a privately held space venture called Blue Origin that’s due to start sending up satellites in 2021 — and although as a publicly traded company, Amazon would have to exercise due diligence to select a launch provider for Project Kuiper, Blue Origin will surely be on the list of prospective partners.

Project Kuiper is a relative latecomer to the race to provide satellite broadband access. Three competitors — SpaceX, OneWeb and Telesat — have already started assembling mega-constellations in low Earth orbit.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is counting on generating billions of dollars in revenue once his Starlink satellite network hits full stride, perhaps as early as 2021. That’s billions of dollars that Amazon and SpaceX’s other rivals will be going after as well. But for all the disadvantages that come with bringing up the rear, Amazon has a market advantage that the others lack: a guaranteed, built-in customer by the name of Amazon.

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