China sets up its own internet satellite network plans

Starting in December, China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp (CASC) plans to launch its first satellites, which will make up a fleet of 300 by 2030.

China sets up its own internet satellite network plans
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The backstory: Low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites have been becoming more popular among private space companies lately. This kind of technology is ideal for providing broadband internet. These satellites are smaller and cheaper to make than higher orbit ones, they’re not as likely to hit other space debris, and they create better connectivity. Networks, or “constellations” of these satellites can provide broadband internet access around the world and can be especially useful in areas that don’t have access to regular, ground-based internet. Still, satellites like these are somewhat controversial, with scientists concerned about how they interrupt night sky visibility and with the possibility that they can interrupt other satellite signals.

More recently: There are two major LEO satellite constellation networks for broadband internet. SpaceX’s Starlink is the biggest one, with over 5,000 satellites currently in orbit. The other is the UK government-owned OneWeb, which has about 650 satellites in orbit. More players have been entering this field, though, and the competition is heating up. In October, Amazon began launching its own prototype internet satellites. Eventually, it plans to have more than 3,200 satellites in orbit. 

The development: Starting in December, China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp (CASC) plans to launch its first satellites, which will make up a fleet of 300 by 2030, at an even lower altitude than its competitors. These satellites will make up a new constellation known as Guowang playing into the satellite internet sector. Eventually, CASC hopes to send up 13,000 satellites in low Earth orbit. 

On Thursday, CASC also announced that the first part of its setup for this high-orbit satellite communication network was successful. With its high-orbit network, internet connection can be provided from a more fixed position, with each satellite connecting a wider area. The high-orbit satellites are expected to provide internet access within China and in some other neighboring regions, like Russia, India, Southeast Asia and parts of the Pacific.

Key comments:

“Low-orbit satellites have the advantage of higher communication speeds and low transmission delay, owing to less signal loss over a shorter distance. They’re better positioned for businesses like online HD videos and financial exchanges,” said Sun Yaohua, associate professor in information and communication engineering at the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications. “The low-orbit system also has a more resilient network that is not dependent on a single satellite and can continue to operate if one fails. But if one high-orbit satellite goes down, it will greatly affect the entire network.”

“However, the coordination of high- and low-orbit satellites will be a general global trend in the future, with the former for basic coverage and the latter for regional or operational enhancement,” said Sun.

“This year, there’s a fairly good chance China will launch a couple dozen low-earth orbit communications satellites. And next year they might launch a couple hundred,” said Blaine Curcio, founder of Orbital Gateway Consulting, which tracks China’s satellite industry, earlier this year. “In five years, if you were to tell me that China has 2,000 low-earth orbit communications satellites in orbit, I would say that’s probably about the baseline.”