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Project Kuiper: Amazon set to launch 3,000 satellites to offer broadband to “tens of millions” of people

Amazon's Kuiper Systems wants to launch 3,236 satellites into low-Earth orbit to offer broadband to areas with poor connectivity

 Not content with making billions from retail, launching its own range of smart speakers and tablets, buying high street stores and building rockets, Amazon’s latest venture is to become a broadband provider.

A series of filings (here, here and here) made to the International Telecommunications Union last month describe plans to put thousands of satellites in low-Earth orbit. These satellites will be used to provide broadband to areas where connectivity is poor, or boost connectivty in regions where standard services are available. 

These three filings, spotted by GeekWire, were made by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on behalf of a company called Kuiper Systems LLC. Overnight, Amazon confirmed it owns this company and issued a statement about its plans.

In the email, the company explained: “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.”

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It add that this is a “long-term project” – so it is unclear when the satellites will launch – but the company believes the network will be able to serve “tens of millions of people who lack basic access to broadband internet.” 

The name Kuiper comes from a region of the Solar System, beyond the planets, known as the Kuiper Belt. Extending from the orbit of Neptune towards the Sun, its a strip of small icy bodies orbiting in formation.

Under Amazon’s plans, codenamed Project Kuiper, a network of 3,236 satellites would be launched into low-Earth orbit, made up of 784 satellites orbiting at an altitude of 367 miles; 1,296 satellites orbiting at a height of 379 miles; and 1,156 satellites sitting 391-miles up.

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This particular satellite formation would offer broadband services along the latitude from 56 degrees north to 56 degrees south where approximately 95% of the world’s population lives. 

The countries with the poorest connections include Bahrain and the Phillipines, according to research from last year. It also found large parts of India, and entire regions of Africa are without any access to web services.

Although Amazon’s plans sound honourable, it is likely to cost millions, if not billions, to get set up. Amazon will therefore likely be hoping that the more people it can get connected, the more items it can sell from its stores. When asked why he was developing smart speakers, for example, or producing TV shows, Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos said all those projects help him “to sell more shoes.” 

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Amazon is not the first company to have this idea.

Its major rival in the race to build rockets, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, has already launched two prototype satellites as part of its Starlink broadband data constellation. This constellation is expected to be four times the size of Amazon’s Project Kuiper.

A London-based company called OneWeb similarly launched its own Airbus-built satellites into orbit earlier this year. It plans to have a OneWeb constellation of more than 650 satellites by 2020. With Telesat hoping for a similar number in the same timeframe.

Elsewhere, Facebook, alongside Boeing and LeoSat have outlined plans for space-based broadband.

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