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Short lifespan of LEO satellites boosts Taiwanese supply chain

Allen Hsieh, Taipei; Vyra Wu, DIGITIMES Asia 0

Credit: AFP

Over the past year, the discourse surrounding satellite communication has gained significant momentum. Smart phone heavyweights like Apple and Huawei have ventured into incorporating direct satellite connectivity features into their devices, which infuses vibrancy into the sluggish mobile phone market.

Considering the landscape of mobile communication, the satellite-dependent non-terrestrial network (NTN) is emerging as the pivotal gateway propelling us from the 5G epoch into the realm of 6G. In essence, the entity that first secures dominion over space-based communication holds the potential to secure an advantageous foothold in the 6G era.

In the context of prevailing 6G expectations, approximately half of its composition constitutes an extension of the existing 5G technology, while the remaining half encompasses visionary technologies like reconfigurable intelligent surfaces (RIS) and Terahertz (THz), among which satellite communication stands out. Anticipated to transcend the confines of contemporary mobile networks, 6G is poised to evolve into a hybrid network paradigm. This implies that in regions untouched by conventional mobile coverage, satellite networks can attain comprehensive global reach. External consensus points towards a commercial debut of 6G around 2030. Surveying the evolution of mobile communication, we currently find ourselves in a pivotal developmental juncture.

The emergence of satellite communication as the gateway to the 6G era stems from the well-developed state of satellite technology in human progress. However, prompted by communication demands, satellite orbits have gradually shifted closer to the earth's surface. This evolution involves a transition from GSO and MEO to a concentration on LEO, characterized by lower deployment costs. In contrast to the aforementioned advanced technologies, LEO satellites exhibit higher feasibility. The crux lies in surmounting and promoting terminal device technologies akin to those found in smartphones, along with the deployment of LEO satellites. The comparatively shorter lifespan of LEO satellites will also result in abbreviated supply chain cycles.

At present, within the realm of LEO satellite deployment, SpaceX's Starlink has taken a significant lead, with approximately 4,000 satellites launched successfully. Other players like OneWeb and Amazon's Kuiper are diligently striving to narrow the gap. Additionally, China is harnessing its national capabilities to introduce a "Chinese version of Starlink" under the moniker of China Satellite Network Group, with ambitions to launch over 10,000 LEO satellites. Whether for smartphones or intelligent vehicles, a more comprehensive LEO satellite infrastructure is on the horizon, ushering in a multitude of applications and usage scenarios.

Experts within the industry analyze that, it will still require a considerable amount of time for NTN to establish itself within mature markets. Presently, discussions are abundant but substantive progress remains limited. Given the short-term surge in popularity of 5G for ground-based communication, the room for NTN's survival is relatively constrained. Nonetheless, when contemplating communication aspects, satellite deployment introduces greater flexibility. With growing demand projected for the future, satellite orbits will continue to draw nearer. This trajectory might culminate in the emergence of satellites even closer to the earth than the present low orbit, potentially reaching distances as close as 300 kilometers from the surface.

At present, the typical lifespan of LEO satellites is around 5 years. If this span were to gradually decrease to 2-3 years, it would closely align with the replacement cycle seen in modern smartphones. Viewing this from a different perspective, this adjustment could effectively bridge the gap caused by the prolonged lifespan of smartphones, consequently opening up additional opportunities for supply chain enterprises.

Historically, the space market primarily emphasized GSO and MEO satellites. However, the technical complexities associated with these satellite types are considerable, and the required quantities are limited. For Taiwan's supply chain businesses, penetrating this market was no easy task. Nevertheless, the ascendancy of LEO satellites within the space sector has introduced opportunities for Taiwanese enterprises due to their comparably lower entry barriers, higher demand volume, and shorter operational lifespans. Especially within the domain of ground-based equipment, numerous Taiwanese manufacturers possess the production capacities and have successfully integrated themselves into the supply networks of prominent satellite firms. As the demand for LEO satellites continues to surge, coupled with the concurrent reduction in their operational lifespans, the enhancement of revenue within the supply chain will be even more pronounced.