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Amazon, fighting SpaceX’s Starlink plans, says Elon Musk’s companies don’t care about rules

Amazon slammed Elon Musk’s SpaceX as a serial rule-breaker on Wednesday amid an enduring fight over the two companies’ plans to build rivaling satellite networks. The conflict, waged within lengthy filings to the Federal Communications Commission, is nothing new. But this time, Amazon sent FCC officials a laundry list of Musk’s past troubles with other regulators, mounting its most aggressive attempt yet to push back on SpaceX’s speedy timeline for deploying its broadband satellites.

“Try to hold a Musk-led company to flight rules? You’re ‘fundamentally broken,’” Amazon wrote in its filing, referring to the time Musk complained that the Federal Aviation Administration’s regulatory structure slowed down SpaceX’s operations. “Try to hold a Musk-led company to health and safety rules? You’re ‘unelected & ignorant,’” it added, referring to Musk’s beef with officials who sought to keep factories closed to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

This particular fight — there have been many — goes back to earlier this year when SpaceX proposed an update to its Starlink network, a vast constellation of satellites in low-Earth orbit designed to beam broadband internet to rural areas with little to no internet connections. SpaceX has over 1,700 satellites in orbit so far, with about 100,000 customers using its internet services in a beta phase. Amazon is planning a similar satellite network called Kuiper with more than 3,000 satellites, but it hasn’t revealed production plans or launched any satellites to space yet.

Last month, SpaceX filed a request to tweak its proposal to the FCC, asking the commission to approve two plans for deploying Starlink satellites in the future. SpaceX, its filing said, would only implement one of the two plans, mainly hinging its decision on how quickly its next generation of Starlink satellites will be ready for launch and when its Starship rocket would be ready to start launching those Starlink satellites. Since 2019, SpaceX has used its Falcon 9 rockets to launch dozens of dedicated Starlink satellite missions to space. But Starship, a much bigger rocket that’s still under development, would more quickly send satellites in their target orbit, SpaceX says.

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Amazon called foul days later, saying SpaceX’s strategy to propose two mutually exclusive plans runs afoul of precedent and “requires significant effort” for the FCC and other companies to scrutinize. SpaceX wasn’t buying it. “Amazon strains credulity by suggesting it lacks the resources to analyze SpaceX’s application, especially considering Amazon routinely brings as many as six lobbyists and lawyers to its many meetings with the Commission about SpaceX,” SpaceX shot back in another filing.

Amazon, in its latest filing, acknowledged it’s “well positioned” to evaluate the proposals but added that “this burden may weigh more heavily” on the other companies that commented on SpaceX’s plan. Companies are allotted time to analyze and oppose other companies’ proposed plans in case there’s a chance it interferes with their operations.

SpaceX’s rapid development pace of new technologies — supercharged by funding from Musk and lofty investment rounds — often moves faster than government agencies are able to regulate them, creating all sorts of trouble and drama and, sometimes, direct violations. Proposing two tentative plans for the FCC to review, while unconventional, is a bid to get the FCC on board with SpaceX’s speedy development ethic, which is defined by the company’s heavily boasted “iterative approach”: deploy the things first, get them in orbit, then plan gradual updates — or iterations — to weed out inefficiencies in the next satellites’ design. SpaceX started launching the first iteration of some 30,000 planned Starlink satellites in 2019 and has over 1,700 currently in orbit.

Now, SpaceX wants to deploy an upgraded generation of satellites, built bigger and with added capabilities like laser links, which waive the need for ground stations by allowing the satellites to talk to each other and relay communications in orbit as they pass over user areas.

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This production strategy is somewhat akin to SpaceX’s development with Starship: launch the thing first, work out any errors or design inefficiencies that pop up along the way, make design changes, launch again, rinse and repeat. In SpaceX’s rocket world, the iterative approach has pissed off regulators. And in the satellite world, it’s pissing off SpaceX’s competitors. SpaceX has largely moved ahead regardless of those obstacles.

“On the iteration side of things, that’s what keep people engaged,” Jonathan Hofeller, SpaceX’s vice president of commercial Starlink sales, said on Wednesday. “With Starlink we’re certainly capitalizing on it, and we challenge everybody else to capitalize on it,” he said, adding that “the conventional way of doing satellites just takes too long.”

“People come to SpaceX… because they see action,” Hofeller said. “That’s how you get people engaged in what you’re doing.”