As China attempts to isolate Taiwan from the world by cutting more than a dozen undersea cables connecting the country to the Internet, large numbers of fast-moving satellites in low Earth orbit will be crucial to maintaining communications.
In June, Taiwanese Digital Technology Minister Audrey Tang made a rare trip to Europe, where she met with British satellite provider OneWeb, a fast-growing competitor to Elon Musk’s Starlink, which already has hundreds of satellites providing services to government and private customers.
Tang also visited Luxembourg-based satellite communications company SES, which then said it was working with Taiwan and Microsoft to quickly rebuild 5G networks in Taiwan in the event of a disaster.
After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Starlink satellites were reported to have been crucial in maintaining internet connectivity in some areas, despite Russian jamming attempts. But Musk has since said he refused to expand coverage on Russian-occupied Crimea because he refused to allow his satellites to be used in Ukrainian attacks on Russian forces there.
Analysts, defense and technology experts say this has added to an already growing international demand for alternative secure satellite communications, especially from governments that fear they could be drawn into conflict.
For satellite companies and other companies working in space, the geopolitical tensions of the 2020s produced a world very different from what most people imagined earlier in the century. At the time, many companies assumed that globalization would proceed largely unhindered, leading them to rely heavily on Chinese and Taiwanese components and turn to Russia for launch into orbit.
After the invasion of Ukraine, such options no longer seemed possible. By February 2022, OneWeb had 36 satellites ready for immediate launch from the Russian cosmodrome in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. When Western countries imposed sanctions on the Kremlin, the Russian authorities refused to put these satellites into orbit unless the British government gave up its stake in OneWeb – a request that was rejected.
According to the company’s management, this was the second unpredictable black swan challenge in just over two years – the company was forced to declare bankruptcy in late 2020 due to the impact of COVID on a major shareholder. Since then, the company has recapitalized itself with support from investors, especially in the UK, India and Europe.
“To say it’s been a rollercoaster would be an understatement,” said Chris Moore, a former senior Royal Air Force officer who is now the company’s vice president of defense and security.
However, a more divided world has been an opportunity for OneWeb and other companies that provide secure satellite communications — especially since governments are now more reluctant to rely on Starlink and the sometimes unpredictable Musk.
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Although Taiwan has discussed launching its own satellite constellations to ensure communications, experts say its space industry’s ability to do so remains limited. Taiwan itself is a major producer of components for the global space sector — including SpaceX — but Musk’s electric car company Tesla’s reliance on production and sales in China was evident even before Musk’s comments about Ukraine, which would chip away at Taipei’s reliance on Starlink.
Operators say capacity from new satellite companies such as OneWeb – which last week completed a merger with French operator Eutelsat – is often purchased before it becomes available online, as users ranging from airlines and cruise companies want internet access in remote areas. From the world. For governments demanding secure and reliable communications.
Private sector customers are also increasingly building resilience into their systems, including purchasing ground stations that allow them to switch between different satellites and operators as needed – for example due to interference or attacks on the satellites.
OneWeb has not commented on whether it provides services to Kiev or anyone else in Ukraine — but Taiwanese media say government officials there have contacted the company directly, which they expect will be able to cover the entire island by the end of 2023.
In March, Taiwan announced that two undersea cables reaching some of its remote islands had been cut, although it refused to blame Beijing. Taiwanese media reported immediately afterwards that there was growing interest in securing satellite Internet communications. Such geopolitical tensions are increasingly driving choices in this sector.
After the invasion of Ukraine, OneWeb said it would not be able to withdraw its satellites from the Russian-run space base in Kazakhstan, and instead struck deals with both the Indian Space Research Organization and Musk’s company SpaceX to launch replacement versions. OneWebs Moore says that after previously relying entirely on the Russian Soyuz engine as a launch partner, the company now plans to diversify further.
Race to start
The global ability to launch satellites is currently being pushed to its limits — in part due to Amazon’s Project Kuiper, which has reportedly closed dozens of deals to build the company’s Internet satellite constellation that is expected to reach most of the world by 2029.
In addition to scrambling for launch slots, airlines and other high-tech companies are now reworking their supply chains to diversify production and reduce the risk of some dramatic disruptions.
OneWeb now has its entire first generation of more than 600 satellites in orbit, though it is still rolling out its network of base stations around the world — each requiring separate negotiations with host governments.
Britain’s own stake in OneWeb allows the country to impose national security restrictions on the company’s operations, including blocking base stations in some countries, although it will not name those countries.
The merger with Eutelsat will allow the combined company to offer services with both the geostationary satellites the French company already operates — which are located in high orbit above a specific location on Earth — and OneWeb’s lower-orbit satellites, each of which is roughly the size of a washing machine. It moves at about 17,000 miles per hour.
“It’s hard to jam because it’s moving so fast and you have multiple satellites visible at the same time,” OneWeb’s Moore says.
“Each satellite also has multiple beams. We designed them that way for commercial purposes, but by their very nature it makes them very difficult to jam and disable. And because we have 634 of them in orbit, we’ve managed to disable many satellites that are not so far away.”
He added that the company already has some spare satellites in orbit to replace satellites that are no longer operational or out of service, and that it is ready to launch and produce more as needed.
Attacks on space infrastructure don’t just happen in space. Hours before Russia invaded Ukraine, US satellite company Viasat was attacked in what technology experts called the largest hack of the first war, destroying numerous terminals, modems and routers, erasing data and disabling multiple parts of Ukrainian communications systems.
“One lesson from Ukraine is that most countries — including their militaries — now rely primarily on commercial space infrastructure,” said Theodora Ogden, an analyst at the Rand Corporation who specializes in space travel.
“This brings with it a whole host of risks that companies have to deal with.”
* Peter Apps is a Reuters columnist who writes on defense and security issues. He joined Reuters in 2003 and covers global defense issues from South Africa and Sri Lanka. He has been a columnist since 2016. He is also the founder of the think tank, the 21st Century Study Project, and has been a Labor Party activist and a British Army reservist since 2016. (Editing by Nick Macfie)
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