China makes competitive bid for LEO satellite dominance against Starlink

Allen Hsieh, Taipei; Julie Chang, DIGITIMES Asia 0

Credit: AFP

In a strategic move to expand its presence in the low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite segment, China's Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center recently commissioned the Shiyan satellite. Developed specifically for satellite IoT applications, the launch utilized the Chang Zheng 2C (CZ-2C) shuttle. Billed as the "Chinese Starlink", Shiyan is designed to bolster China's progress towards 6G technology implementation. While technologically significant, this launch highlights China's broader challenge of establishing robust satellite infrastructure amidst evolving global broadband standards.

Shiyan's launch is emblematic of China's leap into 6G technology and its strategy to counteract potential space resource monopolization by the U.S. and its affiliates. Industry trends prove China's aggressive push towards integrating terrestrial and non-terrestrial network infrastructures. Nevertheless, market demand for non-terrestrial networks remain nascent, and current chips can only handle limited data volumes, especially when juxtaposed against traditional terrestrial networks. Given the geopolitical climate, particularly the key role Starlink played in Ukraine's communication landscape, China's impetus to refine its LEO capabilities and inaugurate a satellite network on par with Starlink is palpable.

LEO satellites present a plethora of advantages, including cost-effectiveness and enhanced deployment versatility compared to their medium and high-Earth orbit counterparts. However, the race is on, as the low-Earth orbit can only accommodate 60,000 satellites, and Starlink is already planning to deploy 42,000 of them.

Shiyan's early July deployment aligns with China's grander state-sanctioned "China Satellite Network Group" vision. Relevant filings with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) were initiated as early as September 2020. The industry anticipates a surge in Chinese LEO satellite launches in the ensuing years.

The ITU's policy of awarding satellite orbital rights based on a first-come, first-served principle further intensifies this race. It's worth noting that any reservations lapse if entities fail to launch at least 50% of their declared satellite count within stipulated timelines. Considering Starlink's proven launch proficiency and their aggressive roadmap, they are poised to meet their scheduled deployments.