SpaceX’s Starlink is about to face some competition from China

It’s been a big few days for Elon Musk’s aerospace firm SpaceX, sending the first text through its new Direct-to-Cell satellites, then launching its 300th rocket.

And Musk’s engineers might’ve got some motivation from the news that China just started work on its second low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellation.

LEO satellite constellations are dense networks of small satellites offering high-speed internet to anyone, anywhere. Their lower orbit means faster internet speeds, but they need more satellites (a constellation) to get global coverage.

Most global data still flows via undersea cables, but LEO satellite constellations are emerging as a resilient alternative in areas that lack digital infrastructure. And as prices drop, these constellations will become more competitive elsewhere.

Starlink (SpaceX’s LEO satellite internet constellation) was first to market in 2021 and still enjoys a monopoly, with 2.3 million subscribers from over 70 countries now connecting to its 5,250 internet satellites.

But it was only a matter of time until competitors emerged, with China – no stranger to disrupting telecom incumbents – always a natural candidate.

And China’s move into LEO mega-constellations is pretty intriguing, because the stakes are high. Some key considerations include:

  • Intelligence – The more a state can control critical communications, the more it can counter (and conduct) espionage and sabotage
  • Military – Starlink has kept Ukraine’s military online during Russia’s invasion, nudging Taiwan to build something similar with an eye to China, while the US air force has tested Starlink for other possible uses
  • Standards – LEO pioneers can shape industry and regulatory standards, offering a valuable early-mover advantage for companies and countries
  • Profits – The total space market could hit a trillion dollars by 2030
  • Limits – Key orbits and radio bands are already looking crowded, and
  • Influence – China’s own experience shows how low-cost infrastructure can help nations build influence across cash-strapped governments

China’s state-owned Satellite Network Group reportedly wants to start launching 1,300 new constellation satellites into orbit from later this year, and markets like Zimbabwe are reportedly already factoring this plan into their thinking.

But to really make LEO internet constellations viable, you need to master the reusable rocket technology that helps you launch and replace vast numbers of satellites at low cost. And on that front, it still seems nobody can match SpaceX.

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