Friday, October 02, 2020

A new Chinese broadband satellite constellation

Can we afford the wasted capacity and idle investment of SpaceX satellites remaining dormant while flying above China and GW satellites remaining dormant while flying above the US?


In an earlier post, I described three Chinese low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations that seemed to be oriented toward broadband communication. 

  • Hongyun, which plans 864 satellites and will emphasize service in China's remote regions. 
  • Hongyan, which plans around 320 satellites, seems to be looking at applications like maritime, aviation, and mobile backhaul service. 
  • Galaxy Space seems to be focused on 5G backhaul and Internet of things applications. 

None of those companies seem to be pursuing the global consumer market that SpaceX and OneWeb hope to serve, but a new Chinese company code-named GW seems to plan on doing so. 

GW has filed a spectrum application with the International Telecommunication Union for two constellations with the cryptic names GW-A59 and GW-2. They requested permission to use the following frequencies:

  • 37.5-39.5 GHz (space-to-Earth)
  • 39.5-42.5 GHz (space-to-Earth) 
  • 47.2-50.2 GHz (Earth-to-space) 
  • 50.4-51.4 GHz (Earth-to-space) 
for communication with 12,992 satellites:


The size of the constellations implies an intention to compete in the end-user broadband service market. Where might they fit in that market segment?

In a recent podcast, consultant Blaine Curcio pointed out that a long history of government infrastructure investment has left China with a strong terrestrial network. Hongyan might be able to serve much of the remaining domestic market, but with 12,992 satellites in orbits ranging from 30 to 85 degrees inclination, GW seems to be interested in the global market where they would compete with SpaceX and OneWeb. (Telesat will also compete in these markets but is focusing on mobile backhaul and hotspots for education, telemedicine, and community access).

SpaceX, which is off to the fastest end-user start, is focusing initially on the lucrative markets of North America, followed perhaps by Europe. OneWeb would seem to have an advantage in the Asian and African nations where part-owner Bharti has a presence as well as the United Kingdom due to the government's stake in the company. GW would be in a strong position in the nations where China already has "Digital Silk Road" (DSR) projects, as shown below.

DSR IT infrastructure projects as of 12/2018 (source)

The DSR is part of China's ambitions Belt and Road initiative with infrastructure projects in around 70 nations. In late 2016 they added space infrastructure -- the Belt & Road spatial Information Corridor. While they are currently concentrated in Eastern Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa, I've speculated that the DSR may extend to Latin America.

Over half the people in the world live in or near China and India. Many of those have no connectivity and some are paying very high rates for geosynchronous satellite service. If the LEO satellite business works out, there is room for GW, OneWeb, SpaceX, Telesat, and others. 

I have painted a speculative picture of a politically bifurcated LEO Internet with GW serving one set of nations and SpaceX and OneWeb others, but I am certainly not endorsing that future. Satellite constellations are by definition global and we are facing massive global challenges today -- can we afford the wasted capacity and idle investment of SpaceX satellites remaining dormant while flying above China and GW satellites remaining dormant while flying above the US?

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