Amazon workshop for Project Kuiper antenna (source: Amazon website)

Amazon talks progress on phased-array antenna for Project Kuiper satellite broadband constellation

Today, December, 16, Amazon released a pair of blogs discussing its progress to build a small, affordable customer terminal to connect unserved and underserved communities to broadband using its planned Project Kuiper satellite constellation.  A low-cost phased array antenna is the holy grail for low Earth orbit (LEO) broadband constellations, necessary to ensure the satellite can track multiple satellites at a time as they zip through the sky.

Amazon says it has completed “initial development” on the Ka-band phased array antenna that is “smaller and lighter” than legacy antenna designs.  The prototype is already delivering speeds up to 400 Mbps, with performance expected to improve in future iterations.

“If you want to make a difference for unserved and underserved communities, you need to deliver service at a price that makes sense for customers,” said Rajeev Badyal, VP of Technology for Project Kuiper at Amazon. “This simple fact inspired one of our key tenets for Kuiper: to invent a light, compact phased array antenna that would allow us to produce an affordable customer terminal. It’s incredible to see such a small form factor delivering this type of speed and performance.”

Current available commercial phased-array antennas cost upwards of $20,000 or more, while SpaceX’s Starlink antenna is estimated to cost $2400 per unit to produce in quantities of 1 million.  A number of start-up companies have been trying to crack the challenges in mass producing antennas to drive down costs to where it would be a consumer item.

Amazon says its main accomplishment is overlaying Ka-band transmit and receive elements, delivering an antenna that measures 12 inches in diameter.  A smaller antenna reduces production costs significantly, as well as having an impact on shipping and options for end-user installation.  

The blog says the antenna has been tested in “multiple environments” to ensure customer standards for speed and performance.  It has passed “corresponding tests” for speed and latency, supporting max throughput of 400 Mbps and streaming 4K-quality video from a geostationary (GEO) satellite.  Development of the antenna is “one of many” components being designed at a new R&D facility in Redmond, Washington.  

An Amazon engineer involved with the project says the use of CMOS technology that can operate at higher frequencies and the deployment and proliferation of cellular technologies is enabling way to make antennas easier, better and cheaper.

Doug Mohney

Doug Mohney, a principal at Cidera Analytics, has been working and writing about IT and satellite industries for over 20 years. His real world experience including stints at two start-ups, a commercial internet service provider that went public in 1997 for $150 million and a satellite internet broadband company. Follow him on Twitter at DougonTech or contact him at dmohney139 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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