5G From Space: Verizon and Amazon Team Up to Build Antennas for LEO Satellites
Amazon's Project Kuiper, a counterpart to SpaceX's Starlink, aims to bring connectivity to rural areas via a constellation of Ka-band satellites. Now, Verizon wants in on the action.
This week, Verizon Communications partnered up with Amazon’s Project Kuiper on a quest to innovate and expand a network of low earth orbit (LEO) satellites.
Visual of the different orbital proximities to earth. Image used courtesy of TT Electronics
Established in 2019, Project Kuiper—a subsidiary of Amazon—plans to deploy a constellation of large broadband satellites to provide 4G/LTE and 5G to rural and remote areas. Once Project Kuiper is up and running, Amazon will create transmission routes from its AWS cloud computing data centers directly to Kuiper customers through its satellites.
As a leading developer in telecommunications, Verizon hopes its strategic partnership with Amazon’s Project Kuiper will increase the cellular backhaul with nearly 3,236 LEO satellites.
Project Kuiper Takes on the Ka-band
Satellites often orbit the planet in the Ku-band, which allows antenna developers to combine transmittal and receiving functions and minimize the device's footprint in the process. However, when a satellite operates in the Ka-band, the distance between the antennas must increase to operate correctly. This makes it difficult to create a compact solution that encloses both antennas.
Satellite frequency bands. Image used courtesy of the ESA
Last December, Amazon reported that the Project Kuiper team found a way around these problems. The team designed hundreds of antennas in each aperture, the opening through which light travels. Receiving antennas were able to operate between 18 and 20 GHz and transmitting antennas operated from 28 to 30 GHz, surpassing Ku-band frequencies.
Verizon Teams Up With Project Kuiper on Antenna Design
Verizon has begun assisting the Project Kuiper team by defining technical requirements for a custom-built antenna architecture and adding fixed wireless coverage. Amazon’s prototype delivers speeds up to 400 Mbps (Megabits per second) while only needing a 12-inch diameter footprint.
Project Kuiper’s antenna is designed to be easily mass-produced through affordable materials and a simple architecture. Screenshot used courtesy of Amazon
The antenna design is unconventional. Typical Ka-band antennas place their transmittal and receiving antennas next to one another but with a good amount of separation, leading to large surface areas. For Project Kuiper’s antenna, the receiving and transmittal antennas are not next to each other but overlaid over one another. This orientation shrinks the surface area while maintaining the necessary separation for efficient performance.
How Does Project Kuiper Size Up to SpaceX’s Starlink?
SpaceX's Starlink program aims to provide satellite internet access to most of the earth. The Ka-band—the frequency range Project Kuiper is based on—is common for satellites to use since it offers wide bandwidth and small operating wavelengths.
SpaceX is planning its Starlink satellites to operate in various frequency bands: Ku-, Ka-, and V-bands. The V-band range starts around 40 GHz and can go up to 75 GHz. SpaceX has even nodded to the possibility of reaching the E-band range (90 GHz), which would be the highest frequency in low orbit.
Rendering of one of Starlink's satellites in orbit. Image used courtesy of SpaceX and Space
As of earlier this year, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved SpaceX's request to add 7,500 V-band VLEO (very low earth orbit) satellites alongside Starlink's Ku- and Ka-band LEOs.
When Amazon disputed this request, CEO Elon Musk claimed that Project Kuiper was an attempt to "hamstring Starlink." In response, Amazon asserted that Kuiper satellites were designed to avoid interference with Starlink; SpaceX's venture into VLEO, Amazon says, could cause collisions in space and radio interference for consumers.
Hurdles for Kuiper's LEO Satellites
Following the announcement of Project Kuiper’s antenna design, Nima Mahanfar, senior manager of Project Kuiper’s antenna development, discussed potential challenges that may still lie ahead—from materials sourcing to technology issues.
“Solving power challenges in space is hard, and dissipating the heat from that power is even harder," Mahanfar explains. "There’s no air to cool it. So having a low-power system that can provide many gigabytes of service to customers is key.”
CMOS technology will be key to Project Kuiper’s success. Materials such as silicon have been improved over the years to handle higher frequencies in extreme climates, making them an apt candidate for the antenna material that will be exposed to space.
Antenna development is taking place in Redmond, Washington. Image used courtesy of Amazon
Cellular technology and cloud services are other potential hurdles for the Kuiper team. With more devices needing higher broadband and bandwidth, it is imperative that the new antenna design incorporates 5G cellular technology. Couple that with increased data traffic in data centers and it's clear what a substantial challenge it will be for Amazon to become a one-stop shop for global connectivity.
Project Kuiper Attracts Another Big-name Partner
In addition to Verizon, Facebook’s Connectivity team has also expressed interest in joining Project Kuiper. This partnership would launch a grid of satellites by providing resources such as funding and engineers. Facebook is currently in similar partnerships with Hughes Network Systems and Viasat.
Project Kuiper appears to be stacked with many partnerships—aiming to take control of the skies as the main broadband provider for communities worldwide.