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Amazon unveils Project Kuiper terminals

US hyperscaler Amazon has announced a range of products that will one day let customers connect to its satellite network.

In terms of aesthetic, Amazon has gone with the outdoor furniture look, with three terminals of varying sizes, two of which look like cafe tables, and another that vaguely resembles a coffee table.

Each one addresses a different market segment. Its standard model is 30 centimetres square, weighs just over 2 kilos, and is designed to be mounted on a roof, much like a satellite TV dish. It can support throughput of up to 400 Mbps and costs less than $400. Then there is a smaller, portable version that connects at up to 100 Mbps. This one is aimed at consumers who don’t want the $400 version, as well as enterprise/government customers using it for ground mobility and IoT services.

Finally there is the largest, coffee table-shaped terminal, which can handle speeds of up to 1 Gbps, and is aimed at enterprises with more demanding requirements.

“Our goal with Project Kuiper is not just to connect unserved and underserved communities, but also to delight them with the quality, reliability, and value of their service,” said Rajeev Badyal, Amazon’s VP of technology for Project Kuiper, in a statement. “From day one, every technology and business decision we’ve made has centred on what will deliver the best experience for different customers around the world, and our range of customer terminals reflects those choices.”

They all look very smart, but the question remains: will the LEO satellite broadband market be sewn up by the time Kuiper launches?

As we reported this week, Amazon’s first two prototype Kuiper satellites are due to launch on the inaugural flight of United Launch Alliance (ULA)’s Vulcan Centaur rocket, which is scheduled for 4 May at the earliest.

Amazon shared more details about its approximate timeline on Tuesday. It aims to launch the first production-ready satellites in the first half of 2024, and plans to “give its earliest customers” – presumably that means some sort of live beta service – a taste of Kuiper later that same year.

Let’s take Starlink as the benchmark against which to compare Project Kuiper, because like Amazon, the SpaceX-owned LEO outfit is also controlled by an ambitious, space-faring billionaire.

Starlink’s maiden launch took place more than five years ago. However, it didn’t begin offering commercial Internet services until February 2021, by which time it had more than 1,000 satellites in orbit. By the end of last year, it had more than 3,000 floating around up there, and had signed up more than 1 million active subscribers.

This is where Starlink sits today, before Project Kuiper has even left terra firma. That is quite the head start, and in the time that elapses between now and when Amazon’s offering comes online, it’s only going to get bigger. Much bigger. In fact, by 2026, Starlink plans to have 12,000 satellites in orbit, giving it the kind of coverage to address a sizeable chunk of the market.

And Starlink is just one competitor. Another, OneWeb, seems to have put its financial troubles firmly behind it, and has ploughed on relentlessly with deploying its LEO network and signing up one customer after another.

On Wednesday, OneWeb struck a deal with satellite ISP mu Space, which will resell OneWeb services to corporate clients throughout Southeast Asia. Also on Wednesday, it announced that its 18th satellite launch will take place on 26 March. If all goes well, that will mark the completion of its first generation LEO constellation, which will total 618 satellites in orbit, putting it on course to offer global coverage later this year. In the meantime, it is due to begin launching its second-generation satellites in May.

And this is before you get to the host of other budding LEO players, like AST SpaceMobile and Lynk, for example, that plan to offer satellite direct-to-device (D2D) connectivity from constellations of their own.

Amazon has some supremely deep pockets, so it would be foolhardy to rule them out of contention at this point. But a beta launch in 2024 means they will arrive very late to the LEO party and in business, the term ‘fashionably late’ doesn’t usually apply.