Revolutionizing satellite commercialization and forging the path to 6G through LEO

Allen Hsieh, Taipei; Vyra Wu, DIGITIMES Asia 0

Credit: AFP

The emerging space commercial model aligns seamlessly with the evolution of 6G technology. Convergence between mobile and satellite communications indicates a pivotal role for low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites in 6G development.

SpaceX emerges as the primary driving force behind the expansion of the LEO satellite industry market. Its groundbreaking advancements in reusable rocket technology have significantly slashed the cost of individual launches. In 2022, SpaceX executed a staggering 61 rocket launches, with plans to ramp it up to 90 launches in 2023. As Starlink's launch expenses gradually decrease, satellite communication becomes more accessible, resulting in a rapid surge in Starlink users. As of May 2023, SpaceX reported a global user base of 1.5 million Starlink customers. Moreover, support for satellite communication functionalities in consumer devices like smartphones and cars is becoming increasingly widespread. LEO satellites are fostering a diverse range of commercial applications.

Historically, satellite communications were often viewed as a niche market. Under this context, 3GPP, in the course of mobile communication development, didn't prioritize satellite communication. However, recent developments in the satellite communication sector have thrust it into the spotlight within the undefined realm of 6G. SpaceX, as the leading player in the LEO satellite market, is setting the standard for satellite communication in 6G. The capability to utilize LEO satellites for communication has now become a pivotal factor determining which nations and corporations can seize the 6G opportunity.

Simultaneously, satellite communication is recognized as a strategic emerging industry by several nations, including the United States, Japan, and China. Governments have introduced policies to secure their influence in the thriving global LEO satellite market. Numerous companies have also entered the satellite communication arena, such as the UK's OneWeb, Canada's Telesat, and the global leader SpaceX. China has even proposed its version of Starlink.

Under the regulations of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the "first come, first served" principle governs satellite orbital usage rights. Consequently, operators or countries that launch satellites first gain a competitive edge, exerting pressure on latecomers or nations yet to embark on satellite launches.

Taking China as an example, as 6G advances into the standardization phase, China aims to extend the advantage it gained in the 5G era, although it faces challenges due to sanctions impacting Huawei's operations. In the sphere of satellite communication, China is planning to deploy 12,992 satellites for its version of Starlink. However, according to the proposed timeline, the launch is scheduled for the first half of 2024, creating a substantial gap compared to leading nations and operators.

Furthermore, China's support infrastructure for LEO satellites is still in its nascent stages. A recent feature on Huawei's new satellite communication relies on geosynchronous orbits. Even if this successfully launches, considerations include whether consumer demand can sustain operational costs and whether SpaceX has already captured a significant share of the market. This challenge extends not only to China but to all prospective entrants in the LEO satellite market. They must evaluate the competitiveness of their rocket launch technology and business models.