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SpaceX’s Elon Musk and Amazon’s Project Kuiper stir up a war of words over satellites

·6 min read
Musk and Bezos
The rivalry between SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is back in the news. (Musk Photo: TED via YouTube; Bezos Photo: GeekWire / Kevin Lisota)

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and Amazon’s Project Kuiper escalated a different kind of Star Wars today, over the orbital parameters for their rival satellite constellations.

Musk complained that Amazon’s protest would “hamstring” SpaceX’s Starlink broadband satellites, while Amazon replied that SpaceX was seeking to “smother competition in the cradle if it can.”

It’s just the latest space spat between the world’s two richest individuals, pitting Musk against Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

Starlink, which is currently operating on a beta-trial basis, and Amazon’s yet-to-be launched Project Kuiper constellation both seek to make global broadband internet access available to billions of people who are currently underserved — as well as to specialized markets ranging from military communications to cloud computing.

SpaceX currently has more than 1,000 Starlink satellites in low Earth orbit and aims to boost that number to 11,000 or more in the years ahead. Last year, Amazon won approval from the Federal Communications Commission to put 3,236 satellites in a different set of orbits, with at least half of them to be launched by 2026.

Each constellation is expected to cost $10 billion or so to build.

Previously: Elon Musk calls Jeff Bezos a satellite copycat

One of the stickiest issues has to do with potential interference between fleets of satellites — involving not only Starlink and Kuiper, but constellations planned by OneWeb, Telesat and other operators as well.

When the FCC approved Amazon’s plans last July, it said Project Kuiper had to avoid undue interference with other people’s satellites. And that’s where things get tricky.

Just a couple of months earlier, SpaceX asked the FCC to approve a change in orbits for future Starlink satellites. In an effort to improve service and facilitate the safe deorbiting of satellites, SpaceX wants to put its first-generation satellites in orbits ranging from 540 to 570 kilometers (336 to 354 miles), rather than the originally approved range of 1,100 to 1,325 kilometers (684 to 823 miles).

Amazon filed an objection to that proposed change, as did other satellite ventures, on the grounds that the orbital change would hurt their own plans. SpaceX’s proposal has been the subject of back-and-forth arguments ever since.

On Monday, CNBC reported that David Goldman, SpaceX’s director of satellite policy, got in touch with FCC officials last week and called out Amazon and other competitors for making what he called “misleading claims of interference.”

A tweet about that meeting drew a reply from Musk early today:

Musk’s tweet sparked a sharp response from Amazon:

“The facts are simple. We designed the Kuiper System to avoid interference with Starlink, and now SpaceX wants to change the design of its system. Those changes not only create a more dangerous environment for collisions in space, but they also increase radio interference for customers. Despite what SpaceX posts on Twitter, it is SpaceX’s proposed changes that would hamstring competition among satellite systems. It is clearly in SpaceX’s interest to smother competition in the cradle if they can, but it is certainly not in the public’s interest.”

Will the FCC give SpaceX the go-ahead to lower its satellite’s orbits? Or will SpaceX be held back? Don’t expect an immediate verdict. Two weeks ago, the FCC approved SpaceX’s plan to put 10 Starlink satellites in 560-kilometer-high polar orbits with its latest launch, overriding objections about interference. But the commission said it would defer its decision on the broader issue.

Tim Farrar, a telecommunications industry consultant who has previously voiced skepticism about Starlink’s business model, said that decision is likely to turn on whether the FCC considers the orbital change to be a major or a minor modification in SpaceX’s license.

“Given that Kuiper got put into a second processing round where it had to protect all previously licensed systems, getting the FCC to treat SpaceX’s application as a minor modification (despite the likelihood that it will increase interference to other satellite and terrestrial users) is critical for SpaceX because a major modification would potentially need to also be relegated to a second processing round,” Farrar told GeekWire in a Twitter message.

Project Kuiper HQ
Amazon’s Project Kuiper has its headquarters in Redmond, Wash. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

SpaceX’s Starlink project and Amazon’s Project Kuiper both have deep connections in the Seattle area. Starlink’s satellites are manufactured at SpaceX’s facility in Redmond, Wash., while Kuiper’s headquarters are just a few miles away in a different Redmond neighborhood. For what it’s worth, some of the executives who ran Starlink in the early days now hold key positions at Project Kuiper. And as if that weren’t enough, Redmond-based Microsoft is partnering with Starlink on its Azure Space cloud computing platform.

Over the course of the past decade, Musk has won the upper hand over Bezos on a string of space issues, including the patentability of at-sea rocket landings, the disposition of NASA’s historic Launch Complex 39A and funding for future national security launches. But this time around, it’s not just Musk vs. Bezos. Jim Cashel, the author of a book on the global broadband market titled “The Great Connecting,” said the mega-constellation space race is about more than two battling billionaires

“The SpaceX-Amazon tiff over orbits is likely to be the least of our problems when other companies, countries, militaries start ramping up,” Cashel told GeekWire in a Twitter message. “There is finite, shared real estate in LEO, and no global consensus on systems for governance and allocation.”

Update for 11:55 p.m. PT Jan. 26: Larry Press, a professor at California State University at Dominguez Hills who specializes in internet policy, noted in an email that SpaceX has just launched its first batch of laser-equipped Starlink satellites in the lower orbits.

“If Amazon prevails, it will derail the plan for the remaining polar-orbit satellites with inter-satellite laser links. … My uninformed bias favors Musk in this dispute because he is innovating in this case, but I understand that Bezos may have planned based on what had been approved,” Press wrote.

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