Space: China Goes After Starlink


March 30, 2023: China recently announced plans to build a competitor for the American Starlink network that provides fast Internet service to ground users. Starlink was turned on in Ukraine after the Russians invaded in 2022 and gave Ukrainian forces a communications advantage they still enjoy. The Chinese satellite network is called (for the moment) GW and is being developed and deployed by the Chinese military. The Chinese government encourages private enterprise and competition but considers Starlink a threat to Chinese military power. Less than a year ago Russia and China were very public about their envy, anger and hostility towards the new American Starlink space-based communication system. Russia was the first to feel the pain caused by Starlink and declared Starlink founder Elon Musk an enemy who should be executed.

China was less emotional and more practical by making public a government study of the Starlink problem and asking for comments and new solutions. This is a common practice in China and used to be in Russia, especially when the Soviet Union existed. The Soviets used this publicity technique primarily to let all officers in the military know of new tactics, concepts or problems the state was having with something. Public discussion was allowed to help eliminate the less useful suggestions and solutions. Starlink, a subsidiary of SpaceX, is not the only multiple small satellite ISP (Internet Service Provider) system. There are similar efforts underway in several countries, including Russia and China. Starlink is unique in that it was the first to enter service and quickly proved it could do what it was designed to do. That included quickly adapting to the needs of military users. China sees Starlink as a serious threat to the current government and its control over the population as well as the effectiveness of their military. That’s no speculation because it’s already happening to Russian forces, often live on TV, in Ukraine.

Russia has some experience with this sort of thing. Back in 2018 Roscosmos (the state-owned corporation running commercial space operations) was offered a lucrative contract by a British firm, OneWeb, to use 21 Soyuz SLVs (satellite launchers vehicles) to put hundreds of small Internet communications satellites into orbit. This was to establish a worldwide satellite network providing Internet access to anywhere on the planet. This alarmed the Russian government because they would not be able to monitor and censor or block any Internet traffic coming into or out of Russia. The OneWeb system was to use a few ground stations connecting its satellites to the rest of the Internet. Russia was willing to compromise if one of those ground stations was in Russia and the Russians had access to all the Internet traffic passing through it. OneWeb saw that Russia intended to outlaw the use of OneWeb by Russians. The ban could not have been completely effective because some Russians would find a way to pay for their access. OneWeb makes money by acting as an ISP (internet service provider) and for hundreds of millions of people in areas with poor, or no, Internet access the satellite service is all they would have access to. That includes millions of Russians in remote areas. The fact that the FSB would not have access to that Internet traffic would be a bonus for Russian users. OneWeb was forced to cancel the Roscosmos SLV deal. The Russians were the most affordable SLV service available and without it OneWeb did not get into orbit until when SpaceX offered affordable SLV service and began putting the OneWeb satellites into orbit.

The irony of this was that one of the potential replacements for the billion dollar Roscosmos contract was the American SpaceX, which has perfected the reusable boosters (which can land intact and be reused) that lowers the cost of using SpaceX launchers. Roscosmos has been having a hard time remaining competitive and the OneWeb contract was seen as something of a lifeline. China may offer a way out as they are proposing a Russian-Chinese partnership to establish a competitor for OneWeb that would, of course, be accessible to Russian and Chinese Internet censorship efforts. Russia cannot afford to create its own satellite Internet system and Roscosmos is sliding towards bankruptcy.

At the time OneWeb was but one of several efforts to provide global satellite-based Internet service. The others were Starlink, Kepler, Telesat, LinkSure and LeoSat. Starlink was backed by SpaceX, which by 2018 had already launched two test satellites. The full Starlink system would consist of over 11,000 small satellites and SpaceX planned to, and did, have nearly 2,000 in orbit by 2021. Starlink offers high-speed Internet service and is not concerned with FSB objections. The one Chinese backed network, LinkSure, would provide “free wi-fi worldwide” and make money with ads and reselling user data. LinkSure would be subject to Chinese censorship and that killed it because there was not much of a market for censored Internet access. LinkSure is still proceeding with its plans to put 13,000 satellites in low orbit. It is unclear if there is any connection between the new Chinese GW effort and ongoing LinkSure efforts to deploy thousands of small communications satellites in low orbit. GW is not so much about providing Starlink and OneWeb with competition as it is to somehow provide China with a way to disrupt Starlink and other Western satellite networks whenever needed. This raises the possibility that domestic corruption opportunities are the unspoken major justification for China spending so money without a paying market for Linksure/GW.




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