The Federal Communications Commission is looking to streamline its regulatory process for small satellites, as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk ready for a (hopefully non-violent) space battle.
"[We] need to modernize our rules to reflect where the marketplace is going, not cling to outdated rules governing a marketplace that used to be. For instance, the development of smaller satellites means a lot more of them are getting built. And more satellites mean more regulatory reviews," Ajit Pai told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's roundtable on small satellite integration in Washington, DC, on Tuesday. "So as important as regulatory speed and flexibility are now, they will only become more important in the future. That's why we are committed to streamlining our regulatory processes and ensuring flexible rules that can adapt to new technologies, such as these massive, next-generation constellations."
That could bode well for Amazon's Project Kuiper, as well as other satellite companies including OneWeb, O3b and more that are reshaping this industry. (See Amazon Files With FCC to Launch Satellites for Global Broadband.)
The goal of Amazon's Project Kuiper division is to deliver "broadband everywhere," Bezos said during the Amazon re:Mars event in June. Because it's so investment-heavy, this arena is open solely to the few companies, including Amazon, that can afford to lose money for years -- a business strategy it's previously taken in markets such as books.
"It's also a very good business for Amazon because it's a very high-capex [capital expenditure] undertaking," Bezos said. "It's multiple billions of dollars of capex … Amazon is a large enough company now that we need to do things that, if they work, can actually move the needle."
Of course, Bezos happens to own a rocket company, too -- Blue Origin. Neither Project Kuiper nor Amazon have publicly spoken about which company would launch its satellites or whether there would be a bidding system.
Any launches would not happen overnight and Amazon has a history of taking a long-term view of the industries it disrupts. It's also trained Wall Street to support this view.
"In their filing, the Kuiper team concedes that they won't even be able to cover all of America initially, with some parts of Alaska being too far north to receive a solid signal from its constellation. The company is asking for a waiver from covering all of the US and its territories, which is an FCC requirement," Tyler Cooper, consumer policy expert at research firm BroadbandNow, told Broadband World News.
Rules and regs
That is not the only regulatory hurdle Project Kuiper faces, however.
"One issue that is almost certain to come into play revolves around the frequency bands Kuiper and competing services will utilize. The recent filing lists that Amazon wants to receive permission to operate on the Ka frequency, which another company -- Iridium -- is already relying on for their own satellite network," Cooper added. "Starlink has also indicated that it will use the Ka and Ku bands, so it is almost certain that there will be legal and logistical challenges to navigate as these services begin to come online."
Iridium already offers service worldwide via its satellite system. The FCC has only approved Starlink's large scale low-earth orbit (LEO) satellite tests from long-time competitor Elon Musk and SpaceX, Cooper said.
"Kuiper officially entering the arena will put pressure on Musk's team to accelerate their timeline, and it also solidifies the long-held suspicion that Amazon and SpaceX will be battling it out for early dominance in the nascent LEO satellite market," he added.
Meanwhile, back on Earth
Faster deployments in space means more rapid impact on Earth: While satellite services currently focus on unserved regions, improved technology and more attractive pricing could steer cost-sensitive customers toward extraterrestrial offerings. Satellites should reduce the global digital divide, but even deep-pocketed Amazon eventually wants a profit, no doubt. The US government seeks an eventual return, too; the FCC wants more people connected and fewer without broadband.
"We now stand on the cusp of unprecedented opportunity for the commercial space sector -- and ultimately for American consumers, who will be the chief beneficiaries if the industry can succeed in space. The FCC has been and will continue to be a willing partner as we all seek to transform this potential into reality," Pai said. "[We] now have in our sights new competition in the broadband marketplace and new opportunities for rural Americans who lack access to high-speed Internet access."
However, astronomers and other scientists already voice concern over the effect satellites are having on the earth and skies. With thousands more satellites in play, that damage will intensify at a time when more people are concerned about the environment.
"One other important question to ponder moving forward had to do with the sheer amount of satellites that will conceivably soon be in low orbit. It will be interesting to see just how much leniency there is for increased competition in the industry, as astronomers around the world have already noted concerns with SpaceX's 50-satellite test," said Cooper. "What will the safety and scientific implications be whenever tens of thousands of these devices are positioned high above the earth?"
In response to general environmental and earthly impact concerns, Pai shared some of the approval-process details: The FCC "sought to include" natural decay in all plans of proposed satellite broadband constellations in development, he said. That law, which the agency decided to begin reviewing last year, had not been looked over since 2004, Pai said. Space debris and parts breaking off satellites and rockets during a launch are a major concern since even the smallest object traveling at tens of thousands of miles an hour can do intense damage to any spacecraft, manned or unmanned, Pai said.
"The Starlink satellites … illustrate why we need to focus on this issue. Out of the 60 satellites that were launched into orbit, the vast majority are operational and either in their target orbital planes or getting there," he added. "However, five are currently de-orbiting toward disintegration in the atmosphere. Two are being de-orbited on purpose, but the other three appear to have lost communication with operators on the ground and will naturally decay from their orbits due to molecules that are present and producing drag at that altitude. This natural decay is a built-in feature of the Starlink system."
— Alison Diana, Editor, Broadband World News. Follow us on Twitter or @alisoncdiana.