Amazon fires back at SpaceX in regulatory war of words over satellite constellations

Atlas V launch for Amazon
An artist’s conception shows an Atlas V rocket launching Amazon’s Project Kuiper satellites. (United Launch Alliance / Amazon Illustration)

Amazon laid out out a laundry list of SpaceX’s regulatory tussles today in a letter sent to the Federal Communications Commission, marking the latest chapter in a bare-knuckles battle over broadband satellite constellations.

The letter — sent to the FCC by C. Andrew Keisner, lead counsel for Amazon’s multibillion-dollar Project Kuiper satellite project — argues that SpaceX has run roughshod over regulatory requirements, and that SpaceX lambastes anyone who seeks to call the company to account.

“Whether it is launching satellites with unlicensed antennas, launching rockets without approval, building an unapproved launch tower, or reopening a factory in violation of a shelter-in-place order, the conduct of SpaceX and other Musk-led companies makes their view plain: rules are for other people, and those who insist upon or even simply request compliance are deserving of derision and ad hominem attacks,” Keisner wrote.

This comes in response to SpaceX’s complaint last week that Amazon is “more than willing to use regulatory and legal processes to create obstacles designed to delay” its competitors. We’ve reached out to SpaceX for a response to today’s letter, and will update this report with anything we hear back.

The central issue in the war of words is SpaceX’s request to amend its application for the next generation of its Starlink satellite constellation. SpaceX is already beta-testing its initial constellation of more than 1,600 satellites, and last month, it proposed two new options for placing tens of thousands of additional satellites in low Earth orbit.

Amazon, meanwhile, is still working on its Project Kuiper concept. More than 500 employees are at work at Kuiper’s facilities in Redmond, Wash. Antennas are being tested, and launch agreements are being struck — but no satellites have yet been sent into orbit.

Amazon objected to SpaceX’s latest request, saying that it shouldn’t have combined two potential constellations in one proposal.

“To this simple problem, Amazon proposed a simple remedy: settle on a single constellation proposal (as all others do) and resubmit the amendment,” Keisner wrote. “Instead, SpaceX chose a more complicated path — one that involves misinformation, ad hominem attacks, and a belief that it can influence regulators via social media.”

On Twitter, for example, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk took particular aim at Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who stepped down from the company’s CEO role in July. “Turns out Besos retired in order to pursue a full-time job filing lawsuits against SpaceX,” Musk wrote in a tweet that misspelled Bezos’ name. In another tweet, Musk joked that the solution might be to “zap him on the head with our space lasers.”

Today’s footnote-laced letter touches on several occasions where SpaceX and Musk’s other main venture, Tesla, caused some grief for regulators — including an unauthorized test launch of a SpaceX Starship prototype that ended in an explosion last year, questions about the construction of a Starship launch tower, Tesla’s tiff over a shelter-in-place order during the coronavirus pandemic, SpaceX’s lawsuits over launch contracts and a controversy over the design of SpaceX’s Starlink antennas.

Most of those cases were resolved to allow SpaceX and Tesla to move forward.

“If there is anything kind to say about SpaceX’s approach, it is that it has been effective in achieving SpaceX’s goal of avoiding both the rules and any sanction for flouting them,” Keisner wrote. “But SpaceX’s run of success with this strategy may be coming to an end.”

Keisner referred to last year’s award of $885 million in federal subsidies to SpaceX for boosting rural broadband internet access. In the months since then, some complained that money from the subsidy program was going to areas that are already well-served with broadband, or to provide access in areas such as golf courses, traffic islands and parking lots.

In July, the FCC sent a letter to SpaceX and scores of other subsidy recipients, giving them the opportunity to withdraw funding requests “where significant questions of waste have been raised.”

Keisner said the FCC’s letter “provides some hope that a change in SpaceX’s results will prompt a change in its tactics.” But he also issued a warning. “If SpaceX and Musk continue to hold themselves above the rules, they should buckle up: they will only draw further protest from Amazon and others who want to see rules applied to everyone equally,” he wrote.

Space Amazon Fcc Federal communications commission Project kuiper Spacex Starlink