A Long March-2D carrier rocket carrying the satellite Yaogan-39 blasts off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China's Sichuan Province, Oct. 24, 2023.

A Long March-2D carrier rocket carrying the satellite Yaogan-39 blasts off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China's Sichuan Province, Oct. 24, 2023. Photo by Hu Zenghui/Xinhua via Getty Images

China is building its own Starlink—even as questions surround Musk's constellation

A recent rocket launch lofted satellites for a Chinese service to mimic SpaceX, which was slammed this weekend by a top U.S. lawmaker.

China launched a record 67 commercial rockets last year, second only to the United States’ 116—the vast majority for SpaceX’s Starlink. But Elon Musk isn’t the only one building a space-based network for communications, navigation, and sensing. A Nov. 23 launch from Xichang Satellite Launch Center carried a batch of satellites intended to lay the foundation for China’s own Starlink-like service.

The conflict in Ukraine has proven the utility of satellite internet to fill gaps in communications caused by enemy action or adverse geography. Ukrainian forces rely on Starlink devices to overcome Russian jamming and to guide weapons, including naval drones that have pushed Russia back from Ukraine’s coasts. “Absolutely all front lines are using them,” Kyrylo Budanov, head of the Main Ukrainian Intelligence Directorate, said last year. 

Now the U.S. and its allies have begun to embrace the technology. For example, Air Force tests found Starlink to be reliable in Arctic regions where other communications systems are less so. Space Force has subscribed to SpaceX’s Starshield, a “secured satellite network for government entities.” And in October, NATO used Starlink in an exercise off Portugal to connect drones in flight, presumably as a test for future use as an extra layer of connectivity in hybrid communications architecture. 

But the Pentagon may not be able to count on Starlink. Musk has reportedly personally intervened to keep Ukrainian forces from using Starlink on certain missions, while Russia is reportedly using it in occupied areas of Ukraine. And on Saturday, a leading U.S. legislator said that Starshield services are inactive in the most important location for its use in the Pacific.

“SpaceX is possibly withholding broadband internet services in and around Taiwan — possibly in breach of SpaceX’s contractual obligations with the U.S. government,” wrote Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wisc., chairman of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, in a Sept. 24 letter to Musk.

This follows a pattern of concern about the CCP’s stranglehold over Musk, his corporations, and personal fortune. The oft-combative tycoon has offered effusive praise for CCP leaders, and vice versa. 

In the meantime, China has been eyeing its own capability for some time, although development appears to have been limited until very recently. Chinese aerospace giant CASC has been discussing the imminent launch of a Chinese global satellite internet network since at least 2018, and in early 2020, the PRC government incorporated satellite internet into its plans for “new infrastructure” development.

If China succeeds in developing this capability, the rewards are numerous, and not just in battlefield capability. First, one Chinese analyst estimates that the domestic satellite communications industry is set to more than double in value to $32 billion between 2024 and 2025. It will also provide broadband internet access across the country, especially to rural, remote, and maritime areas where access currently is limited, bringing clear civil and military benefits. Another oft-overlooked strategic advantage of staking out a presence in low-earth orbit is the fact that real estate and frequency bands are limited—and first-come, first-serve. If SpaceX’s plans for Starlink are realized, it will take up a significant portion of that real estate, and Chinese analysts believe it is imperative for China to stake its own claim.

China’s efforts are almost certainly spurred on by the experience of Ukraine, though it appears less than enthusiastic about admitting this. For instance, one analysis from a China Mobile researcher and posted on a government website twice refers to the important role of Starlink in “a certain country’s command system,” pointedly avoiding mention of Ukraine. 

Regardless, the pace of development picked up in 2023. CASC launched the first test satellites in July. That was followed by launches by the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Microsatellite Innovation on Nov. 23 and Dec. 6, and another test launch by CASC on Dec. 30. 

Still, China’s satellite internet project, which some sources refer to as the “Global Multimedia Satellite Network System,” is still in an early experimental stage. According to one analysis, operational satellite internet systems are typically launched one to two years after initial test launches. This would make the end of 2024 or 2025 as a possible timeline for China to begin full construction of its satellite internet constellation.

For now, much remains unclear, including how unified Chinese companies are in their efforts. At present, there appear to be two main lines of effort, from CASC and the Institute of Microsatellite Innovation, with multiple smaller companies also in the running. In 2021, the PRC government established the China Satellite Internet Company in an apparent bid to improve coordination between government, state-owned, and private commercial satellite internet efforts. 

One source indicates that China is planning for an eventual network of 12,992 satellites – a huge number, though still a far cry from SpaceX’s plans for over 40,000 satellites. But Chinese analysts and industry experts note many obstacles. First, low-earth orbit internet satellites are needed in high numbers to ensure coverage but are expected to have lifespans of only around five years, meaning that merely maintaining coverage will require the launch of thousands of satellites a year. So, China will need to solve bottlenecks in its ability to make frequent, low-cost launches with high numbers of satellites. It appears to be making progress on this front, creating new satellite manufacturing capacity, opening new satellite launch centers, and conducting launches with an ever-increasing number of satellite payloads.

Other technical bottlenecks include better technology for managing giant satellite constellations, as well as low-cost user terminal technology. One Chinese researcher avers that, terminal technology must come down to the price of a smartphone to be commercially successful on a wide scale.

In the field of satellite internet, China is clearly behind, viewing SpaceX as its own pacing challenge. However, the fusion of its government and business leadership has clearly decided to make a concerted push to change that. And the last three decades show that when China decides to catch up in a technology area, it succeeds more often than not.