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Jeff Bezos and Amazon Propose Space-Based Internet Service to Compete With SpaceX and OneWeb

Amazon CEOJeff Bezos is joining the Internet space race.

Last month, Amazon filed with the International Telecommunications Union for permission to put 3,236 satellites in low Earth orbit so it could offer Internet service globally. The plan, codenamed Project Kuiper, is similar to those of a number of other companies that are pushing to establish new satellite-based commercial Internet services.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX, for example, plans to put 12,000 satellites in low Earth orbit while OneWeb, backed by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and Masayoshi Son’s SoftBank Group, is looking to loft hundreds of spacecraft. Several smaller efforts are also underway, including by Canadian satellite operator Telesat.

Meanwhile, dozens of tiny startups like Swarm Technologies, Astrocast, and Sky and Space Global are working to send cheap, toaster-size satellites called cubesats into orbit.

All of the companies hope to provide fast Internet connections worldwide, particularly in more remote or rural regions that lack adequate ground-based connections. Potential customers include people in developing countries, passengers on airplanes and boats, and business customers that want real-time data from their equipment, like oil rigs and ocean buoys.

Current satellite-based Internet service from companies like Viasat (VSAT) and Echostar’s (SATS) Hughes Network Systems comes from school bus-sized satellites parked in geosynchronous orbits about 22,000 miles high. But Amazon and most other new entrants plan to use orbits at low as 1,200 miles for satellites that are smaller than washing machines.

The designs are intended to provide faster, cheaper service. But the incumbents are countering by launching new traditional satellites of their own that can provide more bandwidth and higher download speeds.

Amazon said the goal of the project is to bring connectivity to underserved parts of the world. “This is a long-term project that envisions serving tens of millions of people who lack basic access to broadband internet,” the company said in a statement. “We look forward to partnering on this initiative with companies that share this common vision.”

Bezos has a well-known passion for space and already owns the privately-held rocket company Blue Origin. The company is one of the leading private space launching efforts and even has contracts to help some of Project Kuiper’s would-be competitors launch their satellites.

While some analysts have questioned whether all, or even any, of these audacious Internet satellite plans will come to fruition, Bezos seemingly has one big advantage. With a personal net worth estimated at $150 billion, he won’t a big problem finding funding for his satellite dreams, though the project appears to be part of Amazon. Still, there may not be enough customers to support so many different services.

“Whether Bezos finds partners or is willing to invest the billions of dollars needed to build a system remains to be seen,” says Tim Farrar, president of satellite consulting firm TMF Associates . “Everyone is trying to figure out whether the market is big enough for these projects, and that’s ultimately going to be a bigger constraint than any technical issues.”

Another tough problem may be finding safe orbital flight paths for so many satellites from so many different companies. Since the Soviet Union lofted the pioneering Sputnik satellite in 1957, a total of about 8,500 objects have been put in orbit, with more than 5,000 currently in service, according to the United Nations’ Online Index of Objects Launched into Outer Space.

The Kuiper Project’s filing was initially reported by the tech news website GeekWire.

(This story was updated on April 5 with Amazon’s statement.)