Starlink RV: Competition in the rear view from Viasat and Amazon’s Project Kuiper?

Starlink is leading the race for satellite internet supremacy

The latest internet speed analysis from Ookla showed that SpaceX’s satellite service provides the fastest satellite internet in the world and even provides faster download speeds than fixed broadband in most European countries.

SpaceX’s Starlink subsidiary has launched more than 3,500 satellites into low orbit to provide Starlink residential, RV, and marine broadband service. Other companies have a lot of catching up to do if they are to compete. Some companies and organizations have big plans though and one of them is even bigger than Amazon.

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OneWeb and SpaceX have a friendly rivalry. In March 2022, Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, announced it would no longer launch a batch of UK-based OneWeb satellites due to Western sanctions following its invasion of Ukraine. Shortly afterward, SpaceX announced it would step in to launch OneWeb’s satellites.

And things are only getting better. Last June, both firms sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission stating they would collaborate in a spectrum agreement. Both also asked the FCC to drop all past disputes filed against each other.

>> Related article: What Is Starlink for RVs? Is It Right for You?

OneWeb currently has 428 satellites in orbit all sent up aboard Russian Soyuz rockets. OneWeb has pitched its service to businesses and it currently plans to launch a total of 648 satellites. In an April 2021 test, OneWeb recorded download speeds of 165 Mbps, upload speeds of 30 Mbps, and latency of 45 milliseconds.

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Viasat and SpaceX’s relationship is a little less friendly. That may be partially due to the fact that Viasat operates at a higher orbit than SpaceX—in an FCC filing last year, Viasat argued that SpaceX’s Starlink mega-constellation is congesting low-Earth orbit which it needs to traverse to launch its own satellites. So far, Viasat has largely failed to slow or interfere with Starlink in its buildup of satellite capacity.

Viasat, Inc. of Carlsbad, California currently operates four large satellites: ViaSat-1, WildBlue1, Anik-F2, and ViaSat-2. These are much larger than SpaceX’s Starlink satellites though the company offers lower download speeds ranging from 12 Mbps to 100 Mbps.

Viasat recently announced plans to launch its long-delayed ViaSat-3, a constellation of three additional terabit-class satellites, the first in April of this year. The company currently has two large, high-capacity satellites in high geosynchronous orbit.

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At its launch from Kazakhstan in 2011, ViaSat-1 became the highest-capacity satellite in the world. Broadband coverage provided by ViaSat-1 included the continental United States, Hawaii, and Canada. ViaSat-2 rose from French Guiana in 2017 and would double the capacity of ViaSat-1. It isn’t easy to compare the capabilities of the two entirely different broadband systems represented by Viasat and Starlink. Starlink has launched >3,500 of its low-earth orbiters and is rapidly deploying more each week on its way to a deployed array of as many as 42,000.

Viasat Chief Executive Officer Mark Dankberg told a group of Wall Street analysts, “Putting the satellite into service addresses our most immediate challenge which is bandwidth constraints that have caused us to downsize our residential business to support the strong growth we’ve had in in-flight connectivity.” His comment underscored the company’s prioritization of residential and inflight broadband connectivity and mentioned nothing about mobile service.

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Starlink’s availability map shows that it currently has no plans to provide its service in China. Internet access in China is only available via state-owned providers. So, barring historic changes to the status quo, government-backed companies will be the ones providing satellite internet to China’s 1.4 billion population. One company that may do just that is Geespace. On June 2, 2022 a Chinese Chang Zheng 2C rocket launched nine satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO) for the company which is a subsidiary of Chinese auto giant Geely. 

>> Related article: Big Starlink Changes: Starlink for RVs Price Increase to $150/month + Portability for Residential Gone + Starlink Roam Replaces Starlink RV

Geespace currently plans to build a constellation of only 240 satellites and these will mainly be used to transmit data for parent company Geely’s autonomous driving program. However, in an interview with Bloomberg, Geespace CEO and Chief Scientist Tony Wang said “Geely’s future collaboration partners will not be limited to Geely’s ecosystems and car brands. We are also building up partnerships with other industries.”

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Canadian firm Telesat currently operates 15 geostationary satellites. Much like OneWeb, it is targeting businesses rather than consumers. The company is, however, planning a large new constellation called Lightspeed which will consist of 1,600 LEO satellites.

In a Reuters report in 2021, Telesat said it was planning to launch the first Lightspeed satellites in early 2023 allowing it to provide partial service at higher latitudes that year followed by total global service in 2024. On its website, it says it will deliver “gigabits per second” speeds and latency “on par with fiber networks.”

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Amazon is without a doubt the private company best positioned to rival Starlink on a global level. In its own words, the company recently penned “the largest commercial procurement of launch vehicles in history.”

Eighty-three rocket launches carried out by United Launch Alliance, Arianespace, and Blue Origin will send Amazon’s 3,236 Project Kuiper satellites into LEO.

Amazon claims it will “invest more than $10 billion to build” Project Kuiper and it also says it “will leverage Amazon’s global logistics and operations footprint as well as Amazon Web Services’ (AWS) networking and infrastructure” expertise to make its service more accessible.

>> Related article: Why People Are Ditching GPS for Paper Maps

The company aims to launch its first two Project Kuiper prototype satellites, KuiperSat-1 and KuiperSat-2, aboard an ABL Space Systems RS-1 rocket later this year. In 2020, Amazon unveiled a small customer terminal capable of reaching speeds of 400 Mbps. On the flipside, the company says some of its launches will take place aboard rockets that have yet to hit the launchpad—including Jeff Bezos-owned Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket.

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Amazon preparing to launch Project Kuiper satellites

Amazon, for its part, has been quietly preparing its subsidiary, Kuiper Systems LLC, to launch a significant Low Earth Orbit (LEO) array. Kuiper Systems has obtained FCC approval to launch 3,236 Project Kuiper broadband satellites. It will begin the project by launching 1,500 satellites over the next five years. Kuiper Systems LLC was formed in 2019. Its CEO is Rajeev Badyal, formerly SpaceX’s Starlink vice president. Badyal was reportedly fired from SpaceX in 2018.

The FCC Order and Authorization approving Project Kuiper’s plans is interesting reading insofar as it discusses in detail the issues surrounding collision avoidance in orbit of thousands of satellites with more being launched every week. The FCC approved Kuiper’s debris mitigation plan and its launch vehicle and orbiter disposal plans.

It is likely that Amazon having invested billions in Project Kuiper and anticipating infusing billions more will offer satellite internet in competition with Starlink at some point. However, that point appears to be years in the future. Kuiper had better accelerate its deployments—the FCC order requires Kuiper to have the first 1,600 of its satellites in orbit by 2026.

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The bottom line is that talk of competition with Starlink is, at best, premature, insofar as the first year of meaningful orbital broadband capacity achieved by a prospective competitor is probably 2026. And it is worth noting that Project Kuiper is the only entity with latent potential and announced intentions to compete with Starlink. Yet, do not count Viasat out despite its focus on residential broadband service. It is a compelling, relatively small technology concern with deep ties to military and government information services. Its potential is yet to be realized.

Worth Pondering…

We are all now connected by the Internet, like neurons in a giant brain.

—Stephen Hawking