The Federal Communications Commission has approved Amazon’s plans for its ambitious Kuiper constellation, which entails sending 3,236 satellites into orbit to beam internet coverage down to Earth. The decision is a crucial regulatory step that paves the way for Amazon to start launching the satellites when they’re ready.
The company plans to send the satellites to three different altitudes, and it claims it needs just 578 satellites in orbit to begin service, according to an FCC document announcing the approval. Amazon has not announced which launch provider it plans to use to fly the satellites into orbit yet. While Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos also owns the rocket company Blue Origin, the launch provider will have to compete to launch the satellites along with other companies.
There are few caveats to Amazon’s FCC approval. The company must launch half of the constellation by 2026 to retain its FCC license, and then the remaining satellites by 2029. Amazon also must submit to the FCC a finalized plan for how it will mitigate orbital debris, since the design of its satellites aren’t finalized yet. Amazon claims it will take its satellites out of orbit within 355 days, but the FCC argues the company didn’t “present specific information concerning some required elements” for its debris plan. A big concern of a constellation of this size is that the influx of satellites will lead to more collisions in space, creating pieces of debris that could threaten other satellites.
Amazon is one of a handful of companies aiming to create a giant constellation of satellites in orbit, in order to provide broadband connectivity to the surface below. Most notable among these competitors is SpaceX, which has approval from the FCC to launch nearly 12,000 satellites for its Starlink project. So far, SpaceX has launched more than 500 Starlink satellites, with plans to start beta testing the system this summer. Meanwhile, UK-based OneWeb also hopes to build a constellation of 650 satellites, and has already launched 74 of them. The company filed for bankruptcy this year, but was recently bailed out by a consortium that includes the UK government and Indian telecom company Bharti Global.
Amazon claims that Kuiper will “provide broadband services to unserved and underserved consumers, businesses in the United States, and global customers by employing advanced satellite and earth station technologies,” according to the FCC’s approval document.