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Game of Thrones: Up Above!

How geopolitics drive the SatComrevolution as both governments and corporates extend powerplay beyond the Earth

The Low Earth Orbiting (LEO) satellite industry to provide Internet from space is on booster rockets as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit, Bharti group’s OneWeb and Amazon’s project KuiperOne are blanketing the earth with thousands of small satellites, create mega constellations to provide broadband from the heavens above. While this can connect the millions of unconnected people on this planet unlocking tremendous economic value, at the same time it has assumed highly supercharged geopolitical overtones as global competition for the core elements of technology supremacy intensify, and authoritarian regimes throttle or fragment the Internet.

The World is Rushing to Space!

While US and European government are operating through these private enterprises which often represent national interests or work closely with their respective governments, the Chinese government has joined the fray directly to launch broadband beaming nanosatellites into space. China has begun its ambitious plans to build a constellation of 36 LEO satellites, apparently to gather data for natural disaster forecasting and monitoring.

Several other countries, including Angola, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Saudi Arabia, and Thailand, have also launched their own satellites (sometimes dismissively known as “pridesats”) to maintain their independence from the Western companies that dominate satellite communications.

Image: How the big players stack up
Courtesy:Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (German Institute for International and Security Affairs)

The state-owned company China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) aims to build a worldwide network of 156 LEO satellites: the Hongyun Project. A first satellite was sent into space from China in December 2018. Another state-owned company with an almost identical name, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), has also stationed a satellite as a starting-point for an LEO constellation project, called Hongyan.

Yet another Chinese firm, Galaxy Space, launched its first satellite in January 2020. In the next five years, that number is projected to rise to 144 and enable Internet access via 5G.26 It is not clear from publicly accessible information whether the satellite constellation is intended for direct connection of 5G end user devices, or for connection to 5G ground stations. In late 2020 there were reports of an additional Chinese LEO constellation with the somewhat obscure name “GW”, with a planned size of almost 13,000 satellites.

The US government financially supports Starlink and KuiperOne through a programme to expand broadband access in rural areas and as part of defence ministry projects. In their international activities, the two companies benefit from programmes run by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to support the construction of Internet infrastructure in developing countries. US foreign policy also backs them: on a State Department initiative, a memorandum entitled “Internet Satellites and National Security” is signed by the other four members of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance – the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

The Corporate Star Wars

A few weeks ago, Starlink, SpaceX’s low Earth-orbit (LEO) satellite broadband service, has reached a deployment milestone with word this week that the company has shipped 100,000 Starlink terminals. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced on Twitter, that Starlink now serves parts of 14 countries. “Our license applications are pending in many more countries. Hoping to serve Earth soon!,” Musk tweeted. SpaceX is now working on a “Gen2” satellite system featuring heavier, more powerful satellites that, if all goes to plan, will be delivered into orbit via the company’s new, more massive Starship rocket.

OneWeb, a Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite communications operator, co-owned by Bharti group and the UK government, last month launched a batch of 34 satellites by Arianespace from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.  The latest launch takes OneWeb’s total in-orbit constellation to 288 satellites, and these would form part of OneWeb’s 648 LEO satellite fleet that will deliver high-speed, low-latency global connectivity.

Richard Branson’s satellite launch company, Virgin Orbit, will make its stock market debut on the Nasdaq. The deal, which values Virgin Orbit at approximately $3.2 billion, is expected to go towards scaling rocket manufacturing and funding Virgin’s space solutions business and ongoing product development initiatives. Following a successful launch on June 30 carrying a payload of seven satellites for the Department of Defense Space Test Program, Poland’s SatRevolution, and the Royal Netherlands Air Force, Virgin Orbit is slated for another satellite launch in the fourth quarter of this year.

Amazon also has similar plans for its own satellite broadband service and has named it Project Kuiper. Amazon has already got approval from the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to put not a few but a total of 3,236 satellites in the LEO. A significant advantage for Project Kuiper compared to Starlink is that it can draw on the experience of Amazon Web Services (AWS). This subsidiary of the online mail order company runs data centres and data connections. In fact, AWS is one of the largest cloud providers worldwide and has a correspondingly extensive network of data centres. Moreover, Amazon has been involved in installing new submarine cables in recent years.

A Hyper-connected Future

The launch of mega constellation of LEOs, has created three possible future scenarios; first, it reflects how many operators of planetary mega-constellations compete in the market for broadband satellite Internet connectivity. Second, it captures the degree of vertical integration. The question here is whether the mega constellations “only” serve as backbone operators for terrestrial telecommunication providers or, instead, turn into full-service operators that directly service individual customers. It is not very likely that the actual development will neatly correspond to one of these scenarios. Rather, we can expect to see a mix of elements from both scenarios.

These mega constellations are the building blocks of a future hyper-connected world. By 2040, the world will have orders of magnitude more devices, data, and interactions, linking together all aspects of modern life and crossing political and societal boundaries. Increasing speed and global access will provide nations, corporations, and even individuals with services and resources once limited to prosperous countries. This hyperconnected world is a future already beginning to emerge; next-generation networks, persistent sensors, and myriad technologies will fuse together in a global system with billions of connected devices.

By 2040, governments probably will conduct routine on-orbit servicing, assembly, and manufacturing activities, enabled by advanced autonomy and additive manufacturing, to support national space systems and international efforts. Commercial companies probably will offer on-orbit services, such as repair, remote survey, relocation, refuelling and debris removal.

On-orbit services will be used to upgrade satellites, extend their functional lives, and allow for new types of space structures, such as extremely large or complex instruments, but they may need government support to establish the industry. Artificial Intelligence (AI) will allow innovative use of space services by assisting with operation of large satellite constellations and space situational awareness capabilities. AI will also support the fusion and analysis of enormous volumes of high-quality, continuously collected data, driven partly by hyperconnected space and ground systems.

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