Amazon to DC: Can you please clean up all space junk?
Amazon plans to offer its broadband service by the end of next year and have half of its full constellation of 3,200 satellites in place by mid-2026.
As Amazon says it doesn’t need — but likely would accept — government aid, policymakers in Washington are looking for ways to help the fledgling industry as a whole become a new vehicle for American innovation. . But US leaders are still debating how best to help promote the industry which is facing a mess of regulatory issues. Lawmakers and federal officials are actively discussing ways to streamline the licensing of these satellite systems, while agencies are debating the terms for awarding broadband subsidies.
And tied to all of that is how to compete with China as it expands into low Earth orbit.
Although the prospect of space-based broadband internet excites many for its potential to provide connectivity to remote parts of the globe, Amazon and SpaceX face hurdles, such as managing orbital debris and maintaining clear skies for astronomers on Earth. The Federal Communications Commission recently approved Amazon’s latest plans to mitigate space waste from its own satellites, paving the way for these launches.
Limp told POLITICO how the government should help the industry, how artificial intelligence can help Amazon’s broadband program and who its potential first customers are likely to be.
Limp’s conversation with POLITICO has been edited for length and clarity.
Amazon has announced that it plans to start offering broadband service by the end of 2024. Who might those first customers be?
We start with a sparser constellation with fewer satellites and with southern latitudes and northern latitudes – think Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota and Argentina and Australia. Our first service will probably be in these kinds of latitudes. I guess we’ll be able to activate things with hundreds of satellites in 2024, and I guess the first customers are probably enterprise customers to start with. Imagine someone who has a pipeline where he wants to connect an offshore oil well.
Amazon is offer three types of client terminals, including a “standard” model that costs $400 or less to manufacture. How much does it cost to manufacture the other two, the larger high-speed and ultra-compact versions?
The larger antenna is more expensive – it is intended for corporate use. It’s gigabit performance, it packs more Prometheus chips. Verizon would use something like this for a remote 5G tower. The smaller one is noticeably inferior in construction and materials.
What are the technical constraints for changing broadband speeds over time? The US government has truly embraced fiber optic broadband networks because of their status as “future-proof” investments.
We tried to hit a sweet spot here at 400 megabits. Are there customers who will want more? No question. But you can have multiple real-time 4K streams in a house and have plenty of room for telehealth with that much bandwidth.
I certainly think it would be hard to argue that it doesn’t meet today’s needs, and at least the foreseeable future broadband needs of customers.
If I’m a congressman from West Virginia, North Dakota, or Montana, I have communities where fiber will never be available. It would be irresponsible for the taxpayers, because digging a trench that far is madness. I prefer to give a customer two of these satellite dishes. Our infrastructure dollars should be used to install fiber in cities and perhaps even in dense suburbs. But once you move out of sparse suburbs into rural communities, low Earth orbit satellites make so much sense.
We see the United States spending tens of billions of dollars to subsidize the construction of broadband infrastructure in these unserved and underserved parts of the country. Would Amazon benefit from bidding for these types of grants?
Our business model is not based on that. But if we can help, and taxpayer dollars can help those who are underserved, we would like to help. But we don’t need it to make it a big business. We built Kuiper to be a good self-contained company that doesn’t need governments, but I applaud governments for trying to help this happen faster.
And are there any specific demands from the government regarding Kuiper?
Space security. The space is large, but it is increasingly crowded. We want to keep space safe and reduce orbital debris. We will continue to make our voice heard around this program.
The second place we’ve spoken is to use spectrum responsibly. By the way, this is true for us as it would be for anyone else. If they don’t use it, give it back. If they use it, depending on where they are in the order their license was applied to, agree to coordinate with others, so as not to interfere.
We’ve been very pleased with what we’ve seen around the world—certainly here in the United States with the FCC—of their willingness to listen to this.
SpaceX is a big player here which has already launched its Starlink satellite service. What are the competitive advantages that Amazon can bring by launching Kuiper?
I don’t think it will be a sports race where there will be only one winner. There will be multiple winners here. I don’t think there will be a huge number of constellations – they are just too expensive. There are probably a few trade constellations, and then a couple of nation-state constellations, probably, over time.
That being said, I think there is far more consumer demand, business demand, and government demand than the small number of constellations we will be able to supply.
We believe Kuiper can be differentiated from any other constellation. Otherwise, we wouldn’t want to do it. First, customer service – you can call Amazon 24/7/365 and get a human on the phone and ask where your box is or ask why your Kindle isn’t working. You don’t see that as much in the networking industry.
We run a very large network in AWS every day, and we think we can bring that expertise to that.
Finally, the AWS connection. We run a lot of these workloads in the cloud, and when you run your media streaming service on the same cloud as Kuiper, you get lower latency and higher reliability because these elements can be coupled more tightly from a network and regionality perspective.
How could artificial intelligence fit in? There is so much attention in Washington on recent AI innovations.
I’ve been saying for a decade that we’re in this golden age of AI. The fact that we are at a new point in AI is a progression from that golden age.
You see another step function shift with the rise of these generative AI algorithms, probably most notably by large language models. And they too are doing remarkable things. And you see it in DALL-E and ChatGPT. We also use them inside Amazon – Alexa’s teacher model, which is a model of tens of billions of parameters, a large language model, has basically removed most of the work of passing from one language to another. When we wrote an Alexa feature in German and then had to port it to Spanish, a huge amount of work had to be done: tagging and language and linguists had to get involved and IT had to get involved . Now this big language model has figured out how to build a generic language — it can translate all these different things side by side.
When it comes to something like Kuiper, the application layer, obviously people will do all kinds of things on the network. Where AI will help a lot is in intelligent network management, when you are running huge amounts of traffic on a limited resource. And any time you can figure out how to better route that traffic, or how you can better compress that traffic and make decisions about it, you’re delivering a better customer experience. And there is no doubt that the latest generation of AI techniques will help.
Policymakers in Washington often frame these debates as a global technology competition between the United States and China and express a desire to promote US-based champions. What do you think of this goal?
There is a huge opportunity for the public and private sectors to work more closely together. AWS has a very close working relationship with the US government in many different groups. Not exclusively, but we manage data centers for the US government.
It has never been truer that truthful information is a conduit to freedom. And increasingly, in a world that’s much more complicated than it was maybe 10-15 years ago, there are tools that you can use to not reveal the truth. One of these tools is to restrict connectivity. And so Kuiper has the opportunity to be able to help the public sector ensure that there is connectivity.
What are the biggest challenges to moving Kuiper forward? You’ve alluded to supply chain constraints in the past.
The vast majority of our supply chain issues are behind us. If you had asked me this question a year or 18 months ago, I would have given you a very different answer because we are in very different times.
Space is hard. Space is a harsh environment – radiation, thermal, orbit risk, so there is a lot to learn. We are ready to take up the challenge. But it’s like the early days when Amazon decided to get into consumer electronics and build its first Kindle. They had to build that muscle.
We’re building a similar muscle around space, but we don’t yet know all that we don’t know.