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Jeff Bezos
Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon and Blue Origin, speaks at the Satellite 2017 conference in Washington, D.C. (Via Satellite Magazine via YouTube)

Boy, that escalated quickly: Just hours after GeekWire revealed that Amazon is planning a 3,236-satellite constellation to provide global broadband access, code-named Project Kuiper, the company posted scores of job openings for the new space venture.

Virtually all of the 73 Kuiper-related jobs listed on Amazon’s website are in Bellevue, Wash. One exception is a Seattle opening for a senior corporate counsel specializing in international trade and export control.

The timing is notable given Amazon’s decision to relocate its worldwide operations team from Seattle to Bellevue — a decision that seems to signal that the tech giant is cooling on its hometown.

Most of the openings are for engineers specializing in antennas, systems modeling, flight software, semiconductor and hardware design, satellite and spacecraft design, communication systems and flight software. The Seattle area has become a hotbed for such jobs, thanks to aerospace stalwarts such as Boeing and Aerojet Rocketdyne as well as newer entrants including Spaceflight Industries, Stratolaunch, LeoStella, Tethers Unlimited and dearly departed Planetary Resources.

Taken together, Amazon’s listings support the view that the company has been thinking about Project Kuiper for quite some time — but that a lot of the details still have to be filled in, with a rapid ramp-up in the works.

There’s a huge need to serve the estimated 4 billion people around the world who currently lack high-speed internet connections. But Amazon will have to move quickly to catch up with other ventures that went public years ago with their plans for satellite broadband networks.

For example, it’s been more than four years since SpaceX CEO Elon Musk came to Seattle to lay out his plans for what’s now known as the Starlink satellite internet service. Musk’s big reveal set the stage for SpaceX to establish a satellite development facility in Redmond, Wash., to lead the charge for Starlink. SpaceX could start offering service as early as the 2020-2021 time frame, assuming it’s successful in its campaign to put hundreds of satellites in low Earth orbit.

The international OneWeb consortium is working on a similar time frame. Canada’s Telesat is also a front runner in the satellite broadband race.

Satellite constellations in low Earth orbit, or LEO, are thought to represent the next frontier for low-latency, high-bandwidth, low-cost connectivity. But in the wake of Amazon’s announcement, some observers are wondering whether there are too many mega-constellations on the drawing board — and whether Amazon is joining the party too late.

Lots of details are still under wraps. Tren Griffin, a senior director of strategy at Microsoft who’s also a veteran of telecom ventures, mused over which radio frequency Project Kuiper might pick. “I suspect Amazon will file for Ka band, but some businesses are filing in ever-higher frequency bands like V,” he tweeted.

Meanwhile, the Secure World Foundation’s Brian Weeden voiced concern over Project Kuiper’s potential impact on orbital debris. He noted that current international guidelines call for LEO satellite operators to dispose of their spacecraft safely within 25 years of mission completion.

“Reading through their ITU applications, it seems Amazon plans to leave all these satellites up for nearly the full 25 years,” Weeden tweeted. “That’s not very good for space sustainability.”

Amazon will have to address issues such as orbital debris management and non-interference with other satellites as it goes through the arduous process of seeking licenses from the Federal Communications Commission and other regulatory agencies around the world.

Project Kuiper will also have to determine how its satellites will be launched.

Blue Origin, the space venture founded by Jeff Bezos only a few years after he started up Amazon, would be a natural candidate.

Maxime Puteaux, a satellite industry analyst who’s a senior consultant at Paris-based Euroconsult, noted in a tweet that Project Kuiper could turn Amazon into a “captive-by-design customer” for Blue Origin. But publicly held Amazon would have to guard against self-dealing, and ensure that its shareholders would be well-served by transferring funds to Bezos’ privately held venture. It’s not out of the question for Amazon to partner with other launch providers.

If Project Kuiper comes to fruition, would Amazon, SpaceX, OneWeb, Telesat and other broadband players be chasing after the same customers in remote or underdeveloped regions of the world? Or would there be market segmentation?

You could argue that the biggest users of Amazon’s satellites will be … Amazon and its customers.

For example, Prime Video could offer streaming services worldwide via satellite (which could provide an edge over Netflix). The ability to provide cloud computing services to virtually anywhere in the world would be an attractive differentiator for Amazon Web Services (which already has a cloud-based platform for satellite management known as AWS Ground Station). And a global data network would make it a lot easier for Amazon to manage drones, robotic ground vehicles and all the other next-generation delivery channels it’s developing.

When you add the potential for taking orders and serving ads via a ubiquitous internet service, Project Kuiper looks less like a far-out fantasy and more like the final frontier for commerce. Amazon isn’t posting any job openings for satellite service marketers yet, but it’s probably only a matter of time.

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