China launches high-orbit satellite internet that could challenge SpaceX’s Starlink

China announced it has completed the initial set-up of its first high-orbit satellite communication network, which is expected to provide swift satellite internet service within its borders and in several belt and road nations.
The Chinese project could be an alternative to SpaceX’s Starlink, according to a Beijing-based communications expert.

China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, the parent company of the satellite operator, said the network would provide internet service for industries ranging from aviation and navigation to emergency services and energy, state news agency Xinhua reported on Monday.

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The network includes high-throughput satellites ChinaSat 16, 19 and 26. According to the network operator, the satellites cover China as well as parts of Russia, Southeast Asia, Mongolia, India, and the Indian and Pacific Oceans – encompassing much of the area included in the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing’s strategy to boost infrastructure links and connectivity across Asia, Africa and Europe.

The total capacity of China’s high-throughput satellites will reportedly exceed 500 Gbps by 2025.

China became the first country to offer smartphones with satellite calling features this summer when tech giant Huawei launched a 5G phone connected to similar high-orbit satellites 36,000km (22,369 miles) away.

Because of their long distance from the ground, high-orbit satellites stay in a comparatively fixed position relative to the device connecting to them, so each one covers a much broader area than low-orbit satellites, said Sun Yaohua, associate professor in information and communication engineering at the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications.


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Sun compared China’s high-orbit satellite network with SpaceX’s Starlink, which consists of mass-produced low-orbit satellites, saying the former required far fewer satellites for coverage and had no issues when a connected device switches between satellites, offering higher stability.

The Starlink network was developed by American aerospace company SpaceX to provide high-speed, low-cost internet satellite services. It now has more than 5,000 satellites in low-Earth orbit about 550km away.

“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,” Sun said.

“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.”

He added the cost of a single low-orbit satellite is much lower, especially as SpaceX can leverage mass satellite production to add to the Starlink constellation.

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“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,” Sun said.

“China’s high-orbit satellite system is relatively more mature. The low-orbit ones are still developing and will surely power up in the future.”

According to Sun, China will need to invest in low-orbit satellite networks to deploy 6G technology and compete with the Starlink satellites in the use of space, as satellite orbits and radio frequencies are “first-come, first served” resources.

“The operation and management of a satellite system is very complex. Experience needs to be gained in actual practice,” Sun said.

“This high-orbit satellite network will not only facilitate Chinese people’s communication in belt and road countries but also provide experience in maintaining and operating a satellite system. It’s important for the future development of China’s satellite internet.”


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