Starlink has grown into one of the world’s biggest providers of satellite internet services ever since it was launched in November 2020.
However, it certainly isn’t the only player that tries to get a slice of the growing satellite internet market, which is projected to reach $19 billion by the end of the decade.
One of the biggest competitive threats that Starlink currently faces is Amazon’s Kuiper Systems. Amazon first announced the project back in April 2019.
Interestingly, Project Kuiper is being led by Rajeev Badyal, a former president of Starlink, who was fired from SpaceX in October 2018 after various testing deadlines weren’t met.
Before we go ahead in comparing the two projects, here’s a quick breakdown of the key facts about Project Kuiper and Starlink.
|Subscriber Count||None||> 2 million|
|Number of satellites in orbit||2||5,331 satellites|
|Proposed constellation size||3,276 satellites||42,000 satellites|
|Pricing||Not disclosed||$90 – $110 per month for the Residential plan (US)|
Feel free to jump to any of the chapters if you’re interested in a particular point:
So, without further ado, let’s take a closer look at how the two projects stack up against each other.
Whether it’s Kuiper Systems or Starlink, both plan to deploy thousands of satellites in low-earth orbit (LEO). The details may vary, though.
Amazon’s Project Kuiper received approval from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in July 2021 to deploy a constellation of 3,276 satellites. The satellites are expected to roam earth at a distance of 590 km to 630 km (370 miles – 390 miles).
So far, Amazon has been fairly secretive in terms of disclosing details about the satellites themselves. Quilty Analytics estimates that each satellite will weigh roughly 600-700 kilograms (1,300-1,540 pounds).
Moreover, satellites are designed and developed in-house to maximize performance while reducing costs. Amazon is required to deploy at least 50 percent of its constellation by 2026.
Amazon has since come out and also disclosed that each satellite will be able to provide total bandwidth of 1 terabit per second (Tbps).
With that said, plans are already being put in motion. In July 2023, Amazon committed itself to spending $120 million on a new satellite processing facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC).
Project Kuiper is scheduled to begin satellite production at a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Kirkland, Washington, by the end of 2023.
In early October 2023, the first two prototype satellites, called KuiperSat-1 and KuiperSat-2, were sent up into space onboard ULA’s Atlas V rocket.
Amazon later confirmed that the satellites were healthy and that the team successfully established communication.
In the coming weeks, Amazon will analyze the data coming from those satellites to determine whether design or other improvements need to be made.
Starlink, on the other hand, has already deployed more satellites (over 5,000) than Amazon actually plans to launch (3,276). That’s because its constellation is mostly comprised of smaller satellites, which are much closer to earth.
There are three different types of satellites Starlink has developed thus far, namely Gen 1.0, 1.5, and 2.0. The first two models roam earth at a distance of about 540 km to 570 km (335 mi to 355 mi) while weighing between 226 kg (Gen 1.0) to 295 kg (Gen 1.5).
Gen 2.0 satellites, which are more potent and thus provide greater bandwidth capabilities, weigh up to 1,250 kg (2,760 lb). Starlink has since unveiled a Mini version of the Gen 2.0 satellites, which you can read about here.
While the Gen 1.0 and 1.5 satellites are transported using the Falcon rocket series, Gen 2.0 sats will mostly be deployed using Starlink’s Starship rocket.
However, the Mini version is also transported onboard the Falcon 9, but fewer of them in total per launch (roughly 20 Mini’s on a Falcon 9 vs, 50 – 60 V1.5’s).
Meanwhile, Starlink’s current satellites seem much less potent in terms of bandwidth. A V1.5 sat adds 20 Gbps while the Gen2 Mini version boasts 80 Gbps – both substantially smaller than the 1 Tbps Amazon claims to achieve.
It remains to be seen how potent the regular Gen2 satellites will be, though.
All in all, Starlink plans to eventually deploy a constellation of 42,000 satellites. It received approval from the FCC to deploy up to 7,500 Gen 2.0 satellites back in December 2022.
Lastly, Starlink’s constellation is set to be replaced every 5 to 6 years. After that period, its satellites will re-enter earth’s atmosphere, with most parts burning up upon landing.
Meanwhile, Amazon has not disclosed how long its satellites will orbit earth.
Kuiper Systems has contracted three different launch providers, namely United Launch Alliance (ULA), ArianeGroup, and Jeff Bezos-founded Blue Origin, to carry its satellites into space.
Amazon had initially hired ABL as well but the company ran into production issues, which delayed launches until further notice.
However, Amazon isn’t ditching ABL entirely and still plans to work with the rocket manufacturer for future missions.
The first two satellites were launched on the debut mission of ULA’s Vulcan V rocket. Interestingly, that choice led to some controversy.
An Amazon shareholder sued the company, stating that the personal feud between Musk and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos led the latter to contract with the more expensive ULA for launch services.
Starlink does not need to work together with other launch providers. In fact, all of its satellites have been transported on board SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Heavy rockets.
Right now, SpaceX’s rockets remains far and beyond the most reliable and cheapest launch option out there.
Interestingly, both Amazon and Starlink can tap into what I assume are discounted launch rates because of their proximity to the launch provider (Blue Origin and SpaceX, respectively).
That said, Blue Origin remains years away from providing that launch capability at the necessary scale, thus forcing Amazon to purchase launch services from other companies.
Project Kuiper, given that Amazon hasn’t launched a satellite, is not available to either consumers or businesses yet. So far, Amazon has not disclosed any official launch date.
Meanwhile, Starlink has launched all the way back in November 2020 when it was first introduced to consumers in the United States.
It has since expanded to over 60 countries across the globe. You can check where Starlink is available here.
Additionally, Starlink has since expanded into a variety of different customer groups and now offers seven different internet plans.
And just for reference: when Starlink launched in November 2020, it had deployed around 950 satellites into LEO, of which roughly 80 percent remained operational.
Amazon, given the size of its satellites, will likely go live sooner.
Similarly, Project Kuiper representatives have not disclosed what they are going to charge for the service thus far.
It can be expected, though, that Amazon is going to enter the market at very competitive rates and just use profits from its core businesses (e-commerce & especially cloud) to fund the operation.
Starlink, on the other hand, provides different pricing points based on what plan a customer picks as well as the country they reside in.
We keep an updated list of the prices Starlink charges for its Residential plan here.
For example, consumers in the United States pay between $90 to $110 per month for the Residential plan, plus $599 in one-time hardware fees.
That said, pricing in countries with lower purchasing power (e.g., Mexico) or less demand (e.g., due to existing sophisticated networking infrastructure like Japan), is much lower.
Back in December 2020, Amazon shared some details regarding the design of its Kuiper Systems antennas.
It will offer a phased-array antenna, which overlays one set of small elements on top of another one. This feat “has never been accomplished in the Ka-band” according to the Seattle-based e-commerce giant.
Meanwhile, the innovation allows Amazon to minimize the size of its antenna to a width of just 12 inches (30 centimeters).
Luckily, Amazon has since shared additional information about the hardware that users will receive. In March 2023, at a satellite industry conference in Washington, D.C., Amazon provided a first look at three engineering models (not yet finalized).
The first option is features an 7-inch square design and represents Amazon’s smallest and most affordable customer terminal. It only weighs a pound and can potentially be used for applications like ground mobility and internet of things (IoT).
The second option is similar to the regular rectangular dish Starlink offers and can be seen in the picture below,
It measures less than 11 inches square and just 1 inch thick, and weighs less than five pounds without its mounting bracket (which you can see pictured above).
Amazon expects to produce these terminals for less than $400 each, so the costs that customers will have to pay may be slightly higher (depending on whether Amazon aims to turn a profit on the hardware or not).
Lastly, Amazon also plans to unveil a high-performance option, which is aimed at enterprise, government, or telecommunications and pictured below.
The device measures 19 inches by 30 inches. Amazon has not yet disclosed the weight of the dish nor how it is to be mounted.
All customer terminals for Project Kuiper are equipped with an innovative baseband chip, codenamed “Prometheus,” which was designed by Amazon itself.
This chip combines the capabilities of a 5G modem chip typically found in modern smartphones, a cellular base station capable of handling a large volume of customer traffic simultaneously, and a microwave backhaul antenna that can support robust point-to-point connections.
Starlink, on the other side, offers a variety of different hardware sets, depending on your use case.
Its standard set comes with an electronic phased array antenna, router, base on which the antenna can be mounted, and various cables.
Additionally, Starlink offers a high-performance antenna, which is largely aimed at business customers.
Lastly, a flat high-performance dish is meant to maximize performance while on the go (thus relevant for Roam customers).
In recent times, Starlink rolled out a new (Gen 3) version of its router and soon is set to introduce new (and possibly lighter) antennas as well.
The bandwidth and performance that customers of Project Kuiper will experience ultimately depend on what terminal they opted into (on top of the total bandwidth of its satellites, the congestion of the network, and so forth).
Amazon disclosed the performance of each of the above-mentioned terminals:
- Mini version: up to 100 Mbps
- Regular version: up to 400 Mbps
- High-performance version: up to 1 Gbps (or 1,000 Mbps)
However, in reality those speeds will likely be significantly lower than initially promised as more and more users will access the network.
With that being said, there’s some hope given the frequencies Kuiper plans to tap into according to FCC filings.
The terminal to satellite link is on Ka (~15 to 20 GHz) band, with sat to fiber interlinks in the high Ka band around 25 to 35 GHz.
What we can infer from Starlink is that there are certainly going to be some growing pains.
In theory, Starlink is able to offer download speeds of up to 350 Mbps while latency can be as low as 20 ms.
Starlink has since revised its top speed down to 220 Mbps for B2B plans and ‘only’ 200 Mbps for the consumer options (using the US as reference).
In recent times, speed has been slowing significantly as more users are competing for bandwidth.
Another contributing factor are the frequencies that Starlink uses, namely 12 GHz Ku spectrum, where it competes with existing players like Dish for bandwidth.
Amazon, prior to receiving approval from the FCC for its 3,276 satellites-strong constellation, said it would invest up to $10 billion into Project Kuiper.
I would assume that Kuiper receives discounted rates from Blue Origin, which in turn can use Kuiper Systems launches to prove the potency of its own launch capabilities.
Back in October 2022, Amazon acquired the above-mentioned 172,000-square-foot satellite production facility in Kirkland, Washington to expand its manufacturing capabilities.
Amazon had previously set up a 219,000-square-foot research and development facility in 2020, which is based in Redmond, Washington.
Lastly, Amazon has hired over 1,000 people for Project Kuiper already. SpaceX, on the other hand, does not break down Starlink employee counts. With that being said, Starlink’s parent company has over 10,000 employees on its payroll.
The $10 billion that Amazon aims to invest is dwarfed by the projected costs of Starlink, though. SpaceX founder Elon Musk stated in the past that it would require investments of $20 billion to $30 billion to deploy Starlink’s entire fleet.
However, he also said that positive cash flows could be reached with $5 billion to $10 billion in invested capital.
That break-even point, given that Starlink already generates over $1 billion in annual revenue while growing at a rapid clip, doesn’t seem too far off either.
Unfortunately, due to the limited availability of public information, it is hard to pinpoint exactly how different Kuiper Systems will be from Starlink when it finally launches.
What we can say is that the two services will be directionally similar, meaning they both rely on LEO constellations of thousands of satellites to offer high-speed and low-latency internet to consumers and businesses.
Specific data points regarding the hardware, exact speeds, and pricing will likely be revealed closer to when Project Kuiper launches commercially.
Starlink, in the meantime, will continue to expand its reach by launching in new markets and adding new products to its suite.