China to start building 5G satellite network to challenge Elon Musk's Starlink

·5 min read

China will start building a network of a thousand satellites to provide 5G coverage within the next three months, according to state media reports.

The first batch of six low-cost, high-performance communication satellites have been produced, tested and arrived at an undisclosed launch site, according to a report by the state news agency Xinhua on Tuesday.

The company behind the project, Beijing-based start-up GalaxySpace, has said it wants to extend China's 5G coverage around the world and compete with Starlink, owned by Elon Musk's firm SpaceX, in the market for high-speed internet services in remote areas.

Do you have questions about the biggest topics and trends from around the world? Get the answers with SCMP Knowledge, our new platform of curated content with explainers, FAQs, analyses and infographics brought to you by our award-winning team.

The Chinese constellation is small compared with Starlink, which already has around 2,000 satellites in orbit and plans to expand this to 42,000 when the network is complete.

Despite its smaller size, the 1,000-satellite Chinese network will be the first of its kind to use 5G technology.

Scientists involved in the project say this will ensure download speeds of more than 500 megabits per second with a low latency that will be a critical advantage in some demanding applications such as financial trading.

Starlink currently offers a download speed of about 110Mbps for civilian use and although it is using a different technology to 5G, it has the potential to offer 6G services in future.

Beyond the commercial rivalry, Beijing has identified Starlink, which has signed multimillion dollar contracts with the US military, as a threat to China's national security.

In 2020, researchers with the Chinese National University of Defence Technology estimated that it could increase the average global satellite communication bandwidth available to the US military from 5Mbps to 500Mbps.

The researchers also warned that existing anti-satellite weapons technology would find it virtually impossible to destroy a constellation the size of Starlink.

Zhu Kaiding, a space engineer from the China Academy of Space Technology, which is working with GalaxySpace on the project, said the Chinese project was struggling to keep pace with Starlink, which according to Musk is producing six satellites a day.

Zhu did not disclose how quickly China was producing satellites, but in a paper published in domestic journal Aerospace Industry Management in October last year, he said the Starlink programme had forced a satellite assembly line in China to increase its productivity by more than a third.

Zhu and colleagues have said that more than half the routine checks carried out at the launch site of high-frequency operations have been cancelled to save time.

The new satellites also use many components produced by private companies that have not previously been involved in Chinese space projects - a move that helped reduce the total hardware price of a high-speed internet satellite by more than 80 per cent.

Zhu said that the race against Starlink had put enormous pressure on China's space industry because "the technology is complex, the competition fierce, the deadlines tight and the workloads heavy".

It is likely that the number of civilian users of satellite internet service in China will be limited - most urban residents can access 5G through their phone and broadband services are available in most rural areas - so the most likely customers are overseas companies or the Chinese government and military.

In early 2020, GalaxySpace launched an experimental satellite to see if these unprecedented measures would affect the satellite's performance, using.terminals in sites that ranged from China's densely populated east coast to remote mountainous areas in the west of the country.

One of the biggest concerns was bad weather, according to Li Jiancheng, a lead communication technology scientist with GalaxySpace.

Although Starlink warned its users that rain or cloud can affect internet speeds or even cut off communications entirely, Li and colleagues found that the satellite could maintain download speeds of 80Mbps in the worst weather, they wrote in a paper published in Digital Communication World last year.

Two Chinese state-owned space contractors - the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation and China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation - have also launched their own global internet service programmes known as Hongyan and Hongyun.

Although they are smaller in scale than Starlink - the Hongyan constellation will include 324 satellites and Hongyun 156 - they will operate at different orbiting altitudes and frequencies to help China claim more of the diminishing resources in space, according to some scientists informed of these projects.

They say it is unlikely that China will launch a programme as big as the Starlink because two giant constellations in the lower orbit could significantly increase the risk of accidents.

Last year China complained to the United Nations that its space station had been involved in two near misses with Starlink satellites and Musk has denied blocking space, claiming that there is room in near-earth orbit for "billions" of satellites.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2022 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2022. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.