Elon Musk’s satellite internet service Starlink is an enormous project, with over 3,000 satellites in orbit, beaming internet access to customers all over the world. But in recent months, a Chinese competitor has begun to emerge, backed by Beijing — and with ambitions spanning far beyond China’s borders.
After years of stalled plans, China’s satellite internet vision finally became clear in 2021 when Bao Weimin, a director of the country’s main space industry contractor, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), confirmed that efforts were being centralized under an entity known as “Guo Wang,” or national network.
Though a handful of proposals had previously been floated by private and state-backed Chinese companies for internet beamed from satellites in low-Earth orbit — the zone occupied by Starlink — no large-scale effort materialized. Then, the International Telecommunication Union received a filing that made it all clear. The request, which sought approval for nearly 13,000 satellites on behalf of a Chinese company listed as “GW,” revealed the Chinese space industry’s global vision for a broadband satellite internet network that could stretch worldwide.
Though the plans envision a Chinese satellite internet service sweeping enough to compete with Starlink, four industry experts told Rest of World that unlike Starlink, China’s global satellite internet project will be developed and run by the state. “It is unlikely that we will see a genuinely private space company lead the development of a low-Earth orbit satellite internet constellation,” said R. Lincoln Hines, an assistant professor focused on Chinese space power at the U.S.-based Air War College, in an email to Rest of World. “It is possible that we will see a subsidiary of an SOE [state-owned enterprise] or a spinoff … but this will primarily rest on state capital.”
As the Chinese government has pushed the country’s tech entrepreneurs to direct their energies away from perceived frivolities like e-commerce and gaming toward critical high-tech infrastructure like satellite internet, dozens of startups have flooded into an industry that was previously the exclusive purview of the military. These companies specialize in everything from launch vehicles to satellite manufacturing.
Although Beijing is aiming to spur technological innovation and manufacturing capacity at private satellite companies, it’s “unthinkable” that control over any broadband internet service from space would be left in private hands, said Blaine Curcio, a Hong Kong-based satellite industry consultant who has worked with Starlink and OneWeb, to Rest of World. “Ultimately, the task of building the Chinese version of Starlink is going to be done by the state,” he said. “These companies that are developing this technology, they are at best hoping to act as a supplier to the state-owned constellation.”
China’s space companies are looking to beat out Musk’s venture to beam broadband internet from space not just into China, but around the world. According to Lan Tianyi, founder of Beijing-based aerospace consultancy Ultimate Blue Nebula, while China’s ground network infrastructure is comprehensive enough that there may not be a huge need for satellite internet inside the country, it could provide internet access in parts of the world that have been difficult to connect — a goal Starlink has yet to achieve.
“In areas where the internet infrastructure development is lagging — such as Africa, Latin America, and parts of Southeast Asia — we can export China’s satellite internet,” Lan had said in an interview with Chinese media earlier last year. Despite Musk’s previous claims that Starlink would span the globe by the end of 2021, Rest of World found in April 2022 that just 2% of Starlink users were located outside of North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.
A number of countries that have signed partnerships with Chinese entities under the Belt and Road initiative — President Xi Jinping’s signature infrastructure investment project — have agreed to use China’s satellite navigation system, BeiDou. Curcio suggested countries that have expressed an interest in these agreements — like Belarus, Venezuela, and Pakistan — may be similarly intrigued by Chinese-made satellite internet service. “You can imagine real synergies between existing Chinese activities in certain countries and this constellation,” he said.
There are roughly two dozen satellite constellation projects underway in China, and startups have flooded into the sector since the government allowed private investment in 2014. GalaxySpace, OneSpace, Spacety, LandSpace, iSpace, MinoSpace — most of the startups’ names make it clear where they’re aiming. LinkSpace has been testing reusable rockets since 2019. By the same year, launch company LandSpace had reached at least $115 million in funding. In 2020, GalaxySpace became China’s first satellite internet unicorn, following a funding round that included notable Chinese venture capital firms like Chaos Investment and Legend Capital, and the massive, partly government-led venture fund CICC Capital. In 2022, the company’s valuation passed $1.5 billion.
GalaxySpace has been touted as one of China’s most successful and technologically advanced satellite internet projects. With their ground data processed by Four Squares Technology, another Beijing startup, GalaxySpace says it will eventually offer internet speeds nearly five times faster than Starlink. But, by March of last year, when GalaxySpace successfully launched six satellites — bringing its total in orbit to seven — Starlink had already launched 2,000.
At the same time that GalaxySpace has been getting off the ground, another Chinese startup, Geely, has fused multiple Elon Musk ventures into one: the autonomous vehicle maker is planning a constellation of 240 satellites that provide navigation services to its cars, and the first nine were launched in June 2022.
Experts speaking to Rest of World said it is virtually impossible to separate China’s commercial space startups from the government. Some, like GalaxySpace, share personnel — the chairman of GalaxySpace’s technical committee, Deng Zongquan, also runs the government’s scientific research arm, National Basic Research Program — and explicitly plan to cater to the government’s broadband internet project.
As much as these industries are allowed to grow, Beijing tightly controls the internet, and internet service in China is offered only by state-backed telecomms operators. “The government has opened up the industry in some sense to commercially driven innovations,” said Curcio. “But at the same time, the big project, Guo Wang, is still being controlled by the state pretty directly.”
China’s National Development and Reform Commission flagged satellite internet as a critical infrastructure priority in April 2020. At the time, Starlink had just crossed a crucial milestone: following through on projections to launch roughly 60 satellites into space every two weeks. The government’s designation of satellite internet as critical infrastructure signaled approval for rapid development in the industry.
In November 2022, at the Zhuhai Airshow in southern Guangdong, China’s largest space industry event, one exhibition towered above the rest: a giant radar array, standing more than two stories tall. It wasn’t for tracking the movements of planets and stars. It was designed to predict the movements of satellites in low-Earth orbit. Starlink satellites make up the bulk of the traffic it sees. But, if China’s plans work out, that may soon change.