A space battle is brewing over access to a limited slice of radiowaves between several companies that want to launch thousands of satellites into orbit to blanket the planet with high-speed internet. SpaceX and several other companies that went through a complex process to get licenses for the coveted spectrum several years ago are complaining to regulators that Amazon is trying to jump to the front of the line.
Vice’s Motherboard reported that SpaceX has asked the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to deny a waiver request from Amazon to get access to the spectrum needed to make its Project Kuiper broadband satellite program happen. SpaceX was one of nine companies that went through the licensing process in 2016. Amazon did not participate.
Amazon is playing catch up to SpaceX and others in the satellite internet race, and getting a slice of the spectrum could be crucial for the tech giant. If Amazon has to wait for another frequency licensing round, the tech giant would have to play second fiddle and stop transmitting in the event that one of its satellites interferes with a previously established operator like SpaceX, per experts interviewed by Motherboard.
Motherboard reports that SpaceX officials have met with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and other agency staff at least three times to lodge in-person complaints about Project Kuiper. The site also obtained written objection’s to Amazon’s application to get access to the frequency.
“Amazon’s overt attempt to override long-standing rules would undermine confidence in Commission processes, harm competition, and eliminate broadband options for consumers,” SpaceX lawyers wrote in a Nov. 25 filing.
We’ve reached out to Amazon and SpaceX for comment, and we will update this story if we hear back. Update: Here’s Amazon’s statement:
“We look forward to continued engagement with the FCC regarding our license application,” an Amazon spokesperson said. “Amazon is focused on innovating on behalf of our customers, including realizing our vision for Project Kuiper to deliver low cost, high-speed broadband services to the tens of millions of people who live in unserved and underserved communities around the world.”
SpaceX, Amazon and London-based OneWeb are considered the leading competitors in the nascent market to offer high-speed internet access from low Earth orbit, or LEO, to the billions of people who are currently underserved. Other players in the LEO broadband market include Telesat and LeoSat.
The city of Redmond, Wash., where Microsoft is also located, is at the center of this space race. SpaceX’s facilities in Redmond are playing a key role in building the Starlink satellite internet program. SpaceX aims to put 12,000 satellites into orbit and has already conducted a couple launches, including one last month that sent 60 satellites into orbit. The company could start offering limited Starlink service as early as next year.
Earlier this week, GeekWire reported that Amazon’s Project Kuiper is moving to Redmond. Project Kuiper aims to put 3,236 satellites into orbit to provide broadband data connectivity for underserved markets, as well as for Amazon Web Services and the Seattle-based retailing giant’s other data-dependent services.
OneWeb launched the first six satellites of its constellation in February and is expected to launch about 30 more in January. The London-based consortium says it’s planning to offer satellite internet access starting in late 2020 — with the world’s Arctic regions as its initial focus.
Amazon isn’t as far along in its plans. It hasn’t given a timetable for launching satellites or providing service, and it hasn’t yet settled on a launch provider. But the Seattle-based company is nevertheless making a big commitment to Project Kuiper, which CEO Jeff Bezos called “a very good business for Amazon” during a Las Vegas conference in June. The Project Kuiper careers website currently lists 165 open jobs, with most of them based in Bellevue, Wash., the city next door to Redmond.