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Amazon acquires Facebook’s satellite internet experts to boost broadband plans

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by Mike Wheatley

image Inc.’s space ambitions got a big boost today with the news that it acquired more than a dozen satellite internet experts from rival Facebook Inc.

The talent acquisition was completed in April but only reported today by The Information. That report was later confirmed by spokespeople from both companies.

The former Facebook engineers will provide a boost Amazon’s $10 billion effort to build and send to orbit hundreds of satellites that can deliver high-speed broadband internet connectivity across the globe. Amazon’s plans to enter the satellite constellation race were announced in 2019. Through Project Kuiper, as the initiative is called, the company aims to deploy 3,236 internet satellites in low-Earth orbit.

The company intends to use the internet satellites to improve connectivity in parts of the world that are underserved or unserved by terrestrial networks. Whereas traditional internet satellites fly at altitudes of more than 20,000 miles, Amazon is proposing to deploy its constellation just a few hundred miles above the Earth. The increased proximity could provide lower latency for users and potentially cut launch costs, since the satellites will need to be carried a shorter distance to their perch.

Facebook’s team of about a dozen satellite engineers is said to include physicists as well as hardware and software engineers with experience working on aeronautical and wireless systems, The Information’s report said. The financial terms of the deal, which also included some equipment and facilities as well as intellectual property, were not disclosed.

Project Kuiper is believed to be progressing well. Last year it was revealed that Kuiper Systems LLC, a subsidiary set up by Amazon to pursue the project, had developed a new kind of satellite antenna using a phased array design. The advantage is it uses a single antenna dish rather than two, as most traditional satellites use, leading to a significant reduction in manufacturing costs.

Analyst Holger Mueller of Constellation Research Inc. said Amazon’s goal is to get more people connected. “It’s an opportunity to get more people to shop online and it’s also a potential opportunity for its AWS cloud division,” he said.

Facebook had similar goals when it began designing and testing ways to advance satellite connectivity in 2015, but hit a number of roadblocks, leading to its decision to offload its satellite experts to Amazon, The Information reported. Facebook told SiliconANGLE in a statement it never intended to launch a constellation or satellite service, however, and that it has shifted its focus to emerging technologies such as Express Wi-Fi, which is being used by Eutelsat Communications SA to expand connectivity in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Amazon still faces some stiff competition in the nascent satellite internet market, though. Its rivals include tech entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX Corp., which has already deployed more than 1,500 satellites in space as part of its Starlink constellation. Starlink appears to be leading the race as it has already begun beta tests of its internet services.

Another major rival is the British government-backed OneWeb Ltd., which recently launched 36 satellites into orbit ahead of the launch of a commercial internet service that’s expected to go online later this year in the Northern hemisphere. Like Amazon and SpaceX, OneWeb eventually hopes to expand its internet coverage across the entire globe.

Pund-IT Inc. analyst Charles King told SiliconANGLE that today’s news underscores the very real commercial opportunity related to space travel and exploration, and also highlights the potential of low-Earth orbit satellites to solve some of the last-mile challenges in delivering broadband internet to rural and remote areas.

What’s more interesting, King said, is that Facebook’s failure to get satellites off the ground is yet another example of its struggles to expand beyond its traditional social media and ad-driven businesses. “Not to fault Mark Zuckerberg’s success, but he doesn’t seem to excel at driving outside the lanes or coloring outside the lines in the way that Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk regularly do,” he said.

Photo: PIRO4D/Pixabay