Vodafone expands horizons with Amazon's Project Kuiper

Vodafone’s announcement that it has formed a partnership with Project Kuiper, Amazon’s low Earth orbit satellite (LEO) communications initiative, joins a growing list of operator tie-ups with satellite service providers to solve backhaul and rural connectivity challenges.

Vodafone and its African Vodacom group plan to use Project Kuiper’s network to extend the reach of 4G and 5G services to more of their customers in Europe and Africa, serving areas that “may otherwise be challenging and prohibitively expensive to serve via traditional fiber or microwave solutions.”

As part of the collaboration, Amazon plans to partner with Vodafone to roll out Project Kuiper’s high-speed broadband services to “unserved and underserved communities around the world,” although further details were not provided. The companies said they are also exploring additional services targeted at enterprises, such as backup service for unexpected events, and extending connectivity to remote infrastructure.

Amazon has yet to launch any satellites, so delivering access for Vodafone on the ground is still some way off. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently granted Kuiper permission to deploy its LEO constellation of 3,236 satellites. The grant came after the FCC approved Kuiper’s updated orbital debris mitigation plan.

Arun Menon, principal analyst at MTN Consulting, noted that although Project Kuiper production satellites will not go live until 2024, it will be among the biggest satellite constellations to be launched.

“That would mean enabling partner telcos such as Vodafone to extend its coverage in additional markets, eventually beyond Europe and Africa,” he said. The partnership “bodes well for both the operators to connect the underserved and enterprise markets in particular,” he added.

Menon also said that Vodafone’s partnership with Project Kuiper “complements its collaboration with AST SpaceMobile, as the former seeks to cater to enterprise markets with 4G/5G connectivity offerings while the latter aims to provide ubiquitous network coverage for consumers through direct-to-device connectivity.”

Vodafone’s partnership with AST SpaceMobile “aims to provide D2D connectivity services to consumer mobile handsets without the need for any specialized equipment. This is unlike its partnership with Project Kuiper, which requires customer terminals for connectivity. Also, connectivity coverage under AST SpaceMobile partnership seems limited given the size of satellite constellation (~170 satellites),” Menon noted.

Lluc Palerm Serra, principal analyst at satellite research company NSR, an Analysys Mason company, observed that it is rare to see telcos making announcements with such a long-term or mid-term perspective.

“It gives us a sense about how these terrestrial telcos are getting ready to embrace the new technologies coming from the satellite industry. Vodafone has been very innovative in this sense in its activities with AST, and now with Kuiper as well,” he said.

Palerm Serra added that it’s an exciting time for both new (such as Kuiper and Starlink from SpaceX) and legacy (such as Intelsat and Eutelsat) satellite players as new technologies, including within 3GPP, bring down costs and make it easier to integrate satellite solutions with terrestrial telecom networks.

“We believe that the satellite/telco opportunity is going to grow very fast in the next 10 years. Our forecast says that the market will reach $150 billion by 2032. That includes D2D, IoT, and enterprise services,” he said.

A report from MTN Consulting in May 2023 also argued that intense competition and a harsh funding climate mean satellite operators are moving deeper into the telecom space for new market opportunities such as broadband internet, D2D and IoT market segments to find new revenue streams.

According to MTN, as of May 2022, about 4,700 active LEO satellites had been launched – 16 times the number deployed a decade ago.