Rivaling SpaceX, China Sets Up Its First High-Orbit Satellite Internet Covering Vast Regions Under BRI

China has announced the completion of its first high-orbit satellite communication network, presenting a project that could serve as a viable alternative to SpaceX’s Starlink.

Following the successful deployment of a cluster of high-throughput communication satellites, the high-orbit satellite internet, as reported by the state news agency Xinhua, now provides comprehensive coverage across the entire expanse of China and vital regions within the participating countries of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, the overseeing entity of the satellite operator, has said that the network is designed to offer internet services across diverse industries. This includes aviation, navigation, emergency services, and energy sectors.

At the heart of this advanced network of high-throughput satellites are ChinaSat 16, 19, and 26. The network spans across China and reaches strategic regions, encompassing parts of Russia, Southeast Asia, Mongolia, India, and the extensive territories of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. 

This expansive coverage seamlessly aligns with Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, a strategic blueprint for improving infrastructure links and connectivity across Asia, Africa, and Europe and gaining influence there, which critics also describe as “debt diplomacy.”

Furthermore, these satellites feature ample bandwidth and swift transmission capabilities and facilitate video downloads and calls.

Xinhua said, “By the end of the 14th Five-Year Plan period (2021-2025), the total capacity of China’s high-throughput satellites will exceed 500 Gbps. At that time, the country’s high-throughput satellites will provide high-speed network communication and satellite internet access services for industries such as aviation, navigation, emergency, energy, and forestry and grass.”

The successful deployment of China’s first high-orbit satellite communication network underscores Beijing’s growing efforts to provide swift satellite internet services within its borders and across various Belt and Road nations.

This undertaking becomes notably significant as Beijing is apprehensive about Starlink’s associations with the US military. China’s military news website warned last year that SpaceX satellites are a component of Washington’s aspirations for space dominance. 

Advantages Of China’s High-Orbit Satellite Network

Sun Yaohua, an associate professor in information and communication engineering at Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, shed light on the unique advantages of high-orbit satellites. 

As quoted by the SCMP, he highlighted their distinctive advantages, particularly their fixed position relative to connecting devices. This characteristic allows for broader coverage compared to low-orbit satellites.

In a comparative analysis, Sun contrasted China’s high-orbit satellite network with SpaceX’s Starlink, underscoring the former’s efficiency in coverage with a reduced satellite count. 

He also noted its effortless handling of connected devices switching between satellites, which ensures heightened stability in service delivery.

Despite the benefits of low-orbit satellites, the high-orbit system is noted for its stability and resilience, reducing network disruptions in the event of satellite failure. 

The landing of a Falcon 9 Block 5 first stage at Cape Canaveral in July 2019. VTVL technologies are used in many of SpaceX’s launch vehicles.

Yet, the Chinese expert also pointed out low-orbit satellites’ cost-effectiveness and production efficiency in the Starlink constellation.

However, Sun envisions a global trend where high- and low-orbit satellites coordinate, with high-orbit satellites ensuring basic coverage and low-orbit satellites improving regional and operational capabilities. 

While China’s high-orbit satellite system is mature, the ongoing development of low-orbit satellites holds future promise. Moreover, investing in low-orbit satellite networks is essential for China to implement 6G technology and compete with Starlink in space. 

Nonetheless, the high-orbit satellite network improves communication in Belt and Road countries and contributes valuable expertise to advancing China’s satellite internet capabilities.

Meanwhile, Beijing aims to establish its presence in a specific segment of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) known as very low-Earth orbit (VLEO), situated within an altitude of 450 km. 

US China space race
US-China space race/Representational Image

This region, which SpaceX and others have avoided mainly, poses challenges as satellites are more susceptible to gravitational pull, necessitating a higher quantity to cover the same landmass.

China’s initiative involves launching the first satellite in December 2023, forming a constellation slated to expand to 300 VLEO satellites by 2030. These satellites are intended for communication and remote-sensing purposes.

Beijing prohibits SpaceX from offering internet access to Chinese users through Starlink. Over the years, the government has actively backed domestic rocket-launch startups and envisions their eventual competition with SpaceX for contracts to launch satellites into orbit for various companies.