The race is on to launch thousands of internet satellites around Earth and envelop the planet in high-speed, low-latency, low-cost, and unbelievably pervasive broadband internet service.
But as Todd Feathers at Motherboard reported on Thursday, that race has at least one member — tech giant Amazon, founded by Jeff Bezos — that’s starting years behind its competition and seeking a critical exception to the rules to catch up, and companies like SpaceX and OneWeb are crying foul.
OneWeb has launched six of its 650 planned internet satellites and aims to boot up service in 2021. Meanwhile, SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, has rocketed 120 of its Starlink satellites into orbit, plans to send up about 1,400 more in 2020 alone, and start providing web service to customers the same year. Though SpaceX has permission to launch nearly 12,000 satellites, it has asked government regulators to allow the company to send up to 42,000 total (five times as many objects as humanity has ever flown to space).
Meanwhile, Amazon has launched zero of 3,236 planned Project Kuiper network satellites.
The company only this week announced plans to open a 219,000-square-foot facility in Redmond, Washington, to develop and manufacture its spacecraft. It also missed a November 2016 deadline set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to apply to use part of a narrow band of available signal, or spectrum, that’s most suitable to beam internet data to and from low-Earth orbit. Nine companies got permission to execute their plans — OneWeb and SpaceX among them — but Amazon was not one of them.
Without an FCC license, Amazon can’t legally launch satellites into orbit and use them to bathe the US with internet service, so it has requested a waiver to the regulatory process.
As Motherboard reported, SpaceX, OneWeb, Iridium, and other companies are lobbying against the FCC granting that decision with written and in-person complaints to officials.
“Amazon’s overt attempt to override long-standing rules would undermine confidence in Commission processes, harm competition, and eliminate broadband options for consumers,” Motherboard says SpaceX lawyers wrote in a Nov. 25 filing, adding that Project Kuiper would have a “significant detrimental impact [on] SpaceX” and that “Amazon’s flawed analysis yields results that defy common sense.”
There’s a lot of money at stake in the fight: Starlink alone may double or even quadruple the value of SpaceX as a company, according to some estimates — perhaps enough cash for Musk to fund his company’s quest to the surface of Mars.
And though there is enough space in orbit to accommodate tens of thousands of new satellites, experts say clashing use of similar broadband internet signals, and the increased risk for accidental collisions, are real concerns.