Main Image Credit Ambitious venture: China is looking to launch a new constellation of satellites that will provide widespread internet coverage. Image: Dancing Man / Adobe Stock
China is currently working on building a mega-constellation of satellites that will enable widespread internet coverage: Guo Wang. The potential motivations behind funding such an extensive and expensive project are manifold, and include China’s continuing expansion on the African continent.
Recent reports have highlighted China’s ambition to launch an internet-satellite constellation known as Guo Wang, which roughly translates to ‘state network’, and would consist of 13,000 satellites. The project first gained momentum in 2021 and is led by the company SatNet, created by the SASAC (China’s State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission), which oversees China’s biggest state-owned enterprises. It is thought that existing mega-constellations might be absorbed into Guo Wang, which could be an indication of the high priority the project has been given. Further, the fact that SatNet was created by the SASAC has been interpreted as an indication that the company enjoys ‘significant autonomy and state support’.
The questions that arise are why this project was conceptualised, and why it has gained so much traction and is being prioritised now. One of the reasons why the project may be in the spotlight now is the recent success of Starlink. SpaceX announced in December 2022 that the service has reached 1 million global subscribers. The commercial success and dual-use nature of this capability was highlighted on the world stage in the opening stages of the war in Ukraine, and has continued to dominate the headlines. While Starlink has been mentioned in the context of many capabilities and uses – including communications, command and control, and UAVs – its purpose and task is very simple: providing internet access, which in turn enables a host of different capabilities.
For all the praise and international coverage that Starlink has received, it is not without its faults. The system, despite promising worldwide coverage once the full constellation has been achieved, cannot currently be accessed in several parts of the world – notably Crimea, but also Russia, China and large swathes of Africa. While two dozen African countries – including Morocco, Egypt, Kenya and Tanzania – state that they will begin receiving the service in 2023 or 2024, there are another 20 countries in Africa and several in Central Asia, such as Kazakhstan, that state that service data is currently unknown. Meanwhile, countries in South Asia such as India and Pakistan state that regulatory approval is pending.
A Starlink-like capability has also caught the attention of the authorities in Taiwan, who have announced investment in a sovereign capability that will be half-commercial, half-state-owned. The need for this was most recently evidenced by the fact that the island of Matsu was cut off from the rest of the world when two of its undersea cables were damaged. The whole of Taiwan is connected via 14 undersea cables, which might prove to be an initial target in the case of an invasion. The prospect of isolation is a dangerous one, which Taiwan – with its focus on societal resilience – will be keen to prevent. The importance of a Starlink-like capability – namely a means of internet access that not only provides an independent source of information, but also allows civil society to exchange information – has been evidenced in Ukraine. One of the last journalists to leave Mariupol names the complete cut-off of information as one of the main reasons why the city fell so swiftly – it allowed mis- and disinformation to thrive and cause chaos and confusion among the population, and the fact that no information could get out allowed the Russian troops to act with impunity.
Existing Belt and Road projects in Africa may lead to a leapfrogging moment, where countries opt for the Chinese internet constellation over Western providers due to the fact that much of their infrastructure is already Chinese-built
But why would China – by all standards a well-connected country – invest in such a capability? There are several potential motives, and the reality in all likelihood is made up of a number of factors rather than a single cause.
The Economic Case for Guo Wang
Starlink is by no means the only or the first mega-constellation that aims to provide a global internet connection, but SpaceX is the first company to be successful to the extent that it has been. Similar ventures went bankrupt in the 1990s and early 2000s, including Teledesic, Iridium and Globalstar. Despite the fact that technology has moved on and become less expensive since then, the case of OneWeb serves as further evidence that the path of satellite-enabled internet services has not always been smooth. Even though the company recently completed its constellation, it had to be saved from bankruptcy in 2020.
Starlink is already being framed as a success story, despite not having yet reached full global coverage and despite planning a further eye-watering amount of satellites before it considers its project complete. Therefore, in terms of capturing the market, now might be the time to enter with a competing product – before Starlink becomes too big to overtake.
Furthermore, Guo Wang is seen as a potential commercial opportunity for China, where growth in the private sector is still relatively recent. One of the reasons that now might be a good time to invest can be seen in the current shortcomings of Starlink, such as rising prices for customers – particularly in Ukraine. If this trend continues, prospective customers may begin looking for cheaper alternatives.
Guo Wang as Part of the Digital Silk Road
Gaps in Starlink coverage over vast rural areas, especially on the continent of Africa, point to another potential motive for China: soft power. This is evidenced by the fact that Beijing has signed 117 space cooperation agreements with more than 30 governments on sharing space-related infrastructure and building ground stations. A Chinese White Paper in 2021 stated that this cooperation would form part of the Belt and Road Initiative, and mentioned the Space Information Corridor as a way to strengthen cooperation, including through the application of communications satellites.
Existing Belt and Road projects on the continent may lead to a leapfrogging moment, where African countries opt for the Chinese internet constellation over Western providers due to the fact that much of their infrastructure is already Chinese-built. This process would be accelerated not only by the relationships that Beijing has built, but also by existing infrastructure, including the 70% of Africa’s 4G infrastructure that is Huawei-built – which would suggest that plugging into satellite-enabled internet would require comparatively little additional effort.
The existing strides that China has made in terms of soft power, specifically on the continent of Africa and with regard to internet infrastructure, suggest a relatively fast and easy plug-in into Guo Wang
The soft power element would not just lie in the provision of infrastructure and the resulting relationship-building, but also in the fact that China would be able to control information flows – a strategy that Russia has followed in eastern Ukraine since 2014. Given the existing censorship of Chinese internet, it can be reasonably assumed that a satellite-enabled internet service would similarly not provide unobstructed access to independent internet for everyone.
Enough Space for Guo Wang?
This last point touches on a question that is still hotly debated surrounding the maximum orbital carrying capacity. Lower Earth Orbit (LEO), which hosts Starlink as well as Guo Wang, does not have set paths for satellites to fly in. There are debates as to how many satellites can truly and safely operate within LEO without creating too much of a collision risk, which is why launching another mega-constellation sooner rather than later makes sense. Either the orbit will become riskier to operate in, or harsher restrictions might make mega-constellations much more difficult to register and launch.
Another factor is one that has been even less explored: the case of our atmosphere. The fact that satellites can now be launched in such large numbers, and so swiftly and comparatively cheaply, is due to the reality that modern satellites are much smaller and lighter than their pre-1990s predecessors. This also means that a lot of them are made of, or contain, aluminium. When these satellites burn up in the atmosphere at the end of their lifetime, all this aluminium will be absorbed by the atmosphere. However, we don’t currently know what effect this chemical introduction will have on the atmosphere.
In conclusion, there are many reasons why China would build a satellite-enabled internet constellation in LEO, and why it would prioritise such a project right now. The existing strides that China has made in terms of soft power, specifically on the continent of Africa and with regard to internet infrastructure, suggest a relatively fast and easy plug-in into Guo Wang. It remains to be seen whether Starlink can retain its competitive edge, and whether expanding to other countries in the next two years – as promised – will deliver enough to prevent Guo Wang from capturing this market. While Ukraine has helped Starlink become a household name, the aforementioned weaknesses and the continuing stories surrounding SpaceX founder Elon Musk may make customers – both states and individuals alike – reconsider their options.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Research Analyst and Policy Lead