Amazon's satellite internet plan is increasingly looking like the one Elon Musk has at SpaceX, with thousands of spacecraft that are compact in size. Among the reasons for the similarities, people tell CNBC, is that Jeff Bezos has hired some of Musk's previous senior management.
Former SpaceX vice president of satellites Rajeev Badyal and a couple members of his team are now leading Amazon's Project Kuiper, people familiar with the situation told CNBC. Project Kuiper represents Bezos' plan to launch 3,236 small satellites into space to provide high-speed internet to anywhere in the world. The plan puts Amazon in the middle of a race among at least five other companies aiming to launch next-generation satellite networks with global broadband coverage.
Badyal previously ran the "Starlink" division at SpaceX, which launched its first two test satellites last year. SpaceX initially planned for the network to consist of a similar constellation of 4,425 satellites in low Earth orbit. Late last year, the FCC approved an addition of 7,518 satellites to the constellation, bringing Starlink's planned total to 11,943 satellites in orbit.
Amazon has yet to announce where the satellites will be manufactured and given the time it typically takes to get regulatory approval for similar networks, it appears Bezos' project is at least two or three years behind Musk. Badyal's hiring then is a move to bring in talent with the experience of developing this type of satellite internet network.SpaceX said on Friday the company expects the first full mission of Starlink satellites to launch no earlier than May.
Musk fired Badyal in June, one of the people said, confirming reportslast year that the SpaceX CEO had become frustrated with the pace of Starlink's development. That was about four months after the launch of the first two Starlink test satellites. According to FCC documents, Starlink will become operational once at least 800 satellites are deployed.
"As a matter of company policy we don't comment on personnel. We've brought together an incredibly smart group of experts from across this industry to lead Project Kuiper," Amazon told CNBC in a statement.
SpaceX declined to comment.
SpaceX has continued to develop Starlink in the 10 months since Badyal left, as the company is now readying to launch its first batch of satellites for the full network. While it is apparent that the design of Starlink's satellites has changed in the past year, there are only a handful of indications in what ways.
FCC filings made by SpaceX in the past few months show that the first part of the network will operate at a very low Earth orbit. Additionally in a letter to the FCC last month, SpaceX said the satellites are now designed to be "completely demisable" when they return and burn up in Earth's atmosphere. SpaceX said this means there is "zero" risk any pieces of Starlink will hurt anyone on the ground after the satellites are done being used.
SpaceX also submitted an application this year to operate 1 million "earth stations" in the U.S. These stations are "the ground based-component" of Starlink, essentially how people will be able to connect to SpaceX's high-speed internet.
These ambitious satellite networks will require intensive capital, with some industry officials estimating costs running as high as $5 billion. As one of the world's most valuable companies, there is little doubt Amazon could develop and launch its satellites and SpaceX has been said to have immense funding sources available due to high demand in private markets.
Both Musk and Bezos herald their proposed networks as key to reaching impoverished and unconnected parts of the globe. Starlink and Project Kuiper expect to offer broadband speeds comparable to fiber optic networks, according to federal documents, by essentially creating a blanket connection across the electromagnetic spectrum. The satellites would offer new direct-to-consumer wireless connections, rather than the present system's redistribution of signals.
While Amazon may have been working on Project Kuiper before hiring Badyal, it is worth noting that there are no indications Amazon has filed applications for the satellites with the FCC. For comparison, SpaceX applied for FCC licenses in 2016 and didn't receive approval for two years. Even then, the first FCC license for Starlink last year was experimental.
Finally, it is unclear how Bezos' space venture, Blue Origin, may be involved in Amazon's plans. Blue Origin is private and wholly owned by Bezos. The company is about two years away from the first launch of its New Glenn rocket, which likely will be the primary means that Amazon uses to puts its satellites in space.