Trials underway for Taiwan's wartime satcom program while domestic suppliers wait for a greater role

Misha Lu, DIGITIMES Asia, Taipei 0

A Soyuz-2.1b rocket booster with 36 UK OneWeb satellites. Credit: AFP

As the emergency satellite communication program run by Taiwan's Ministry of Digital Affairs (MODA), inspired by Starlink's wartime application in Ukraine, enters its testing stages, the ministry is reportedly drafting a four-year plan from 2025-2028 to promote Taiwan's low-earth orbit (LEO) satellite industry champions.

MODA's current program, officially known as "Program for the Digital Resilience Validation of Emerging Technologies for Contingency or Wartime Applications," seeks to establish a backup communication network underpinned by non-synchronous orbital satellites, primarily made up of LEO satellites and backed up by medium Earth orbit (MEO) satellites. The proof-of-concept program has already attracted the participation of Eutelsat OneWeb with its more than 630 LEO satellites, in addition to SES with its 20 MEO satellites. MODA previously revealed that it is also in talks with another undisclosed satellite communications network provider.

By the end of this year (2023), the program aims to establish 11 terminal equipment stations known as hotspots and five backhaul stations. By the end of the first quarter of 2023, a total of 21 hotspots and 9 backhaul stations are expected to be created in Taiwan, in addition to a hotspot in an undisclosed location overseas. On December 19, MODA will simulate the disruption of the fiber optic network and trial the capability to maintain communication between Taipei and Kaohsiung by switching to the MEO satellite network. Eventually, the ministry targets to set up 700 hotspots, 70 backhaul stations, and 3 overseas hotspots by the end of 2024.

In light of the war in Ukraine, Jong-Shinn Wu, the Director-General of the Taiwan Space Agency (TASA), previously mentioned that approximately 120 LEO communication satellites are needed to ensure Taiwan can have access to uninterrupted communication 24 hours a day. Currently, TASA is overseeing three satellite programs of such national security significance, namely its B5G, optical remote sensing, and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites. TASA's first B5G satellite will be launched in 2026, followed by a second one in 2028.

Expecting to have approximately 80% of the B5G satellite components sourced from Taiwanese suppliers, TASA has been partnering with local industry players to develop the satellite communication payload. In October, Taiwan's Industrial Technology Institute (ITRI) for example unveiled its RF chip prototype along with the communication payload designated for the B5G satellite, with its user terminal counterpart scheduled to be completed in the first quarter of 2024. Both will adopt TSMC's 65 nm process.

During the Taiwan International Assembly of Space Science, Technology, and Industry (TASTI 2023), Chunghwa Telecom, a state-owned telecom operator, showcased a user terminal designated for MODA's emergency satellite program. Connected to OneWeb's network, the user terminal however adopts the antenna solution of OneWeb-certified, US-based supplier Kymeta Corp. With Taiwan expected to be fully under OneWeb coverage in 2024, we will see if it will further open up opportunities for Taiwanese satellite suppliers to enter OneWeb's supply chain.