For years, satellite internet has been a last resort for people living in remote areas. SpaceX has made waves offering its new Starlink service to select regions with much higher speeds than traditional satellite connections — testers are reporting as much as 150Mbps down. Amazon thinks it can do better with its new antenna technology. The company says its prototype for satellite internet is managing 400 Mbps right now, but we don’t know when consumers will be able to put it to the test.
You’ve probably heard from people stuck with satellite internet from companies like HughesNet and Viasat. Most likely, they were not happy with the multi-second latency and anemic speeds, but it’s better than nothing. That’s actually what SpaceX called its Starlink beta this year: Better Than Nothing. Starlink is currently limited to the northern US and southern Canada, and it requires a hefty $500 setup fee. That includes the company’s satellite dish, which connects to the network over the Ka wireless band.
Amazon’s upcoming Project Kuiper service will be similar to Starlink, but the company claims its prototype Ka phased-array antenna will give it the edge. Amazon’s goal is to reduce the size and cost of the hardware — after all, every customer will need one to access the Kuiper network. However, that’s difficult with Ka-band equipment, which needs more physical separation between transmission (27-30GHz) and reception (17-20GHz) hardware due to the wide range frequencies.
Amazon’s new prototype antenna uses wireless elements overlaid on each other, something that has never been possible with Ka-band hardware before. The entire apparatus is just 12 inches in diameter, a third the size of legacy Ka dish designs. It makes up for the diminutive size by electronically steering Ka beams toward satellites passing overhead. That’s how Amazon is managing such high speeds in its tests. If it can keep real-life speeds anywhere close to the 400 Mbps seen in this test, Kuiper could be a viable alternative even for users in urban areas who have access to wired internet.
Moving beyond the prototype phase will be no easy feat. Last summer, Amazon got FCC approval to launch 3,236 low-Earth orbit satellites for Project Kuiper. SpaceX, meanwhile, is already closing in on 1,000 thanks to its easy access to Falcon 9 rockets. Amazon hasn’t announced a timeline for launching its satellite constellation, but its regulatory approval calls for the full network to be operational by 2029. Amazon would need just 578 satellites to begin offering service, it claims. Perhaps Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space firm can help with that.