Amazon itself describes Project Kuiper as "a long-term 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." Despite the publication of an official description, though, Amazon is not actively promoting the service yet -- this text comes from an Amazon jobs page, where it's apparently trying to hire no fewer than 77 new high-level employees for the project -- at once!
But Amazon is laying the groundwork for getting Project Kuiper up and running. Already, there's a Kuiper Systems LLC set up in Washington, D.C., which the International Business Times confirms is an Amazon subsidiary. And as GeekWire reported earlier this year, the FCC has already made at least three separate filings with the International Telecommunications Union (a United Nations agency responsible for information and communication technology matters) on Kuiper Systems' behalf.
Those filings describe Kuiper's plan to orbit as many as 3,236 satellites around the Earth, and Amazon confirms that the satellites' purpose will be to provide "basic access to broadband internet" to "tens of millions of people" -- which could be an understatement. The orbits described in the filings, notes GeekWire, could theoretically provide broadband satellite internet service to "about 95% of the world's population."
What the filings do not say is when Amazon expects to start building satellites for the constellation (or who might build them), when it plans to begin launching those satellites (or who would launch them -- perhaps Jeff Bezos' other pet project, Blue Origin?), or how much Amazon might charge for providing internet service as an ISP.
Meet the competition
Now, as novel as Amazon's idea sounds, it's not the first company to have struck upon this solution to expanding access to affordable, high-quality broadband internet. Iridium has offered at least limited internet access from satellites for years, and has put 75 Iridium NEXT satellites in orbit to provide cell and internet access, primarily to aviation and maritime customers.
Softbank partner OneWeb and SpaceX have begun deployment of even larger internet satellite broadband constellations, which could reach 900 satellites and even up to 12,000 when fully complete. And yet, while all these companies got out of the gate before Amazon with their satellite deployments, Amazon may still have one advantage over its rivals: cash.
Although certainly a force to contend with in space launch, SpaceX is not believed to be terribly profitable at present. Indeed, it's the deployment of its Starlink constellation of internet satellites that SpaceX is relying upon to become consistently profitable in the future. OneWeb, lacking a space launch business to start off with and provide cash to fund start-up costs, doesn't even have revenue, much less profits.
But Amazon? Amazon is a profits monster.
Cash is king, even in space
According to data from S&P Global Market Intelligence, Amazon earned $12 billion in net income over the past 12 months -- and generated $20.8 billion in free cash flow. For context, that's about twice the amount of cash that SpaceX is reported to be spending on its entire Starlink project -- but Amazon makes this much money every year. What's more, this is Amazon's own money, which it can immediately begin deploying to build and operate its Project Kuiper satellites. In contrast, whenever SpaceX wants to build some satellites, it generally has to tap the debt and equity markets to do so.
SpaceX has already rushed out to secure an early lead in the race to provide broadband satellite internet, but does it have the cash it will need to survive if this race turns out to be more of a marathon than a sprint? And as for Amazon, flush with cash but currently still stuck at the starting gate -- can it make up for lost time, and transform its cash on the ground into satellites in orbit, before SpaceX locks up the market?
As races go, this is going to be an exciting one to watch.