The satellite feud between Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Amazon spilled out into the open on social media this week, after brewing for months in meetings with regulators. It’s only the latest spat in a new race among billionaires for a slice of a $1 trillion telecommunications market.
Musk and Bezos, the two richest people in the world, are racing to build vast networks of satellites in low-Earth orbit capable of bringing high-speed broadband internet to rural parts of the world that have little or no access to the internet. SpaceX has 955 satellites in orbit for its Starlink network and plans to launch thousands more, while Amazon’s Kuiper System is in earlier stages of development without any satellites in orbit — yet.
The quarrel centers on a filing from last summer, when SpaceX asked Federal Communications Commission officials for approval to change some Starlink satellites to altitudes between 540 and 570 km — close to Amazon’s proposed constellation, which will orbit Earth around a 590 km altitude. SpaceX says the tweak would make it easier to de-orbit old satellites without causing spectrum interference with other satellite operators, but Amazon and other companies beg to differ. They say it would create interference, heighten the risk of satellite collisions, and get in the way of Amazon’s future constellation as approved by the FCC.
“It does not serve the public to hamstring Starlink today for an Amazon satellite system that is at best several years away from operation,” Musk tweeted Tuesday, echoing the points made in feisty SpaceX filings posted on Twitter by CNBC reporter Michael Sheetz. In those filings, SpaceX’s director of satellite policy, David Goldman, said “competitors cherry pick data and ignore the true changes in the modification” in order to “reach misleading claims of interference.”
It does not serve the public to hamstring Starlink today for an Amazon satellite system that is at best several years away from operation— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 26, 2021
Responding to Musk’s tweet, Amazon released a statement saying: “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.”
“Despite what SpaceX posts on Twitter, it is SpaceX’s proposed changes that would hamstring competition among satellite systems,” Amazon said. “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.”
The public finger-pointing was an unusual escalation for a kind of industry conflict usually confined to the obscure corners of FCC filing databases. Bezos and Musk’s foray into the world of satellites has generated new excitement — and chaos — for a massive industry filled with incumbents such as SES, Viasat, Intelsat, and others. SpaceX, aiming to invest a total of $10 billion in Starlink, has floated a possibility to investors of splitting the program off into a separate entity sometime in the future and filing an IPO, a prospect that would put Musk’s star power at the helm of another potentially disruptive public company. And despite falling far behind SpaceX, Bezos has pledged to invest $10 billion in Kuiper, cementing its move to compete with both SpaceX and existing satellite internet companies.
“If you are going to put up and basically claim an entire sphere around the earth, then you’re gonna generate a lot more attention and discussion,” said Caleb Henry, a senior analyst at satellite research firm Quilty Analytics. “Because everyone has to know how to operate with respect to that layer of satellites that you put.”
Since its first Starlink launch in 2019, SpaceX has lofted over 1,000 satellites to orbit of the roughly 12,000 needed for continuous global coverage. That deployment pace has been supercharged by Musk’s breakneck push to offer commercial service and start generating revenue to fund SpaceX’s Mars rocket, Starship. In 2018, when development was moving too slow for Musk’s style, he grew angry and fired seven Starlink managers, including the program’s top designer and SpaceX’s VP of satellites. Those two managers now lead Amazon’s Kuiper project.
Last year, SpaceX began an invite-only beta program that now has thousands of users across the US, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Its initial price is pegged at $99 a month, plus $499 for a setup kit that includes a pizza-sized dish.
Amazon’s constellation promises a network of 3,236 low-Earth-orbiting satellites. The online retail giant last month revealed the design for a phased array antenna that can provide “maximum throughput of up to 400 Mbps,” but it has been largely quiet on its deployment timeline or which rocket it’ll use to put the satellites in orbit. Nonetheless, Amazon is one of a handful of organizations to push back on SpaceX’s rapid Starlink deployment campaign for months.
Satellite broadband firm Viasat joined Amazon last year in asking the FCC to deny SpaceX’s application to move nearly 3,000 Starlink satellites to a lower orbit, saying the Starlink system poses “an unreasonable threat to the continued use of the shared orbital environment.” The company escalated its request in December, calling on the FCC to conduct an environmental assessment of Starlink. And some are concerned that SpaceX’s rush to build and invest in its constellation could make it harder for the FCC to regulate it.
“I built it, now you can’t change it - good policy is never formed that way,” John Janka, Viasat’s chief officer for global government affairs, said in an interview.
Since SpaceX began launching its Starlink satellites in batches of 60 atop its Falcon 9 rocket, astronomy organizations have sounded alarms over the satellites’ brightness in the night sky: capturing long-exposure telescopic images of the cosmos from Earth are now often tainted by ugly light streaks produced by the bright satellites passing by.
Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard astronomer who tracks Starlink satellites on the side, said the proximity between SpaceX’s proposed altitude and Amazon’s future satellites is slightly concerning, “but the majority of what they’re asking doesn’t seem, to me, to be really interfering with the Amazon ones.” A bigger commercial concern is SpaceX planting its flag in prime orbital real estate, where “it’s high enough that you don’t have to be constantly re-boosting the orbit and using a lot of fuel, and low enough that if things go wrong it’ll reenter naturally” in the Earth’s atmosphere — a key FCC requirement for mitigating debris in orbit.
“The more SpaceX’s satellites are in that altitude range, the less room there is for other companies to later put stuff there,” McDowell said. “The grabbing-up of all the good territory is a reasonable complaint.”