China launches high-orbit satellite network for swift internet

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30th November 2023 – (Beijing) China announced it has established its first high-orbit satellite communications system, expected to deliver high-speed internet services across the country and parts of Asia and Africa.

State media reported Monday that the network includes three satellites – ChinaSat 16, 19 and 26 – covering mainland China plus regions in the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing’s strategy for boosting infrastructure connectivity abroad.

Total capacity is forecast to exceed 500 gigabits-per-second by 2025. The system aims to serve aviation, maritime, emergency response and other sectors needing reliable satellite internet.

A Beijing academic compared the project to SpaceX’s Starlink, noting key differences. Because high-orbit satellites operate from over 20,000 miles above earth, each covers a wider area than Starlink’s low-orbit satellites just hundreds of miles high.

However, fewer high-orbit satellites are needed for coverage, said Prof. Sun Yaohua of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications. This makes the network more stable, though vulnerable if individual satellites fail.

In contrast, SpaceX has launched over 5,000 low-orbit satellites for Starlink, leveraging mass production to expand its internet constellation rapidly. Though prone to gaps during handovers between satellites, the sheer numbers provide redundancy if some fail.

Low-orbit satellites also enable lower latency and faster speeds for uses like online video and finance. But experts expect future satellite internet will combine both types – high-orbit for basic wide-area coverage and low-orbit for enhanced regional performance.

While China’s high-orbit system is relatively mature, its low-orbit capabilities still lag but will improve over time, Sun said. He noted China must invest in low-orbit networks for deploying 6G technology and competing with Starlink for finite orbital slots and radio frequencies.

Running an end-to-end satellite network is highly complex. The new system will provide vital experience for China in operating and maintaining reliable satellite internet to remote areas, Sun concluded.