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Why Taiwan Is Building a Satellite Network Without Elon Musk

The island democracy urgently needs an internet backup. Mr. Musk’s total control over his Starlink service, which dominates the market, left Taiwan wary.

In Taiwan, the government is racing to do what no country or even company has been able to: build an alternative to Starlink, the satellite internet service operated by Elon Musk’s rocket company, SpaceX.

Starlink has allowed militaries, power plants and medical workers to maintain crucial online connections when primary infrastructure has failed in emergencies, such as an earthquake in Tonga and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Officials in Taiwan face constant reminders that its communication infrastructure must be able to withstand a crisis. The island democracy sits 80 miles from China, where leaders have vowed to use force if needed to assert claims that Taiwan is part of its territory.

Taiwan experiences regular cyberattacks and near-daily incursions into its waters and airspace by the People’s Liberation Army, which has been built up in recent years.

And Taiwan’s infrastructure is fragile. Last year, the outlying Matsu islands, within view of the Chinese coast, endured patchy internet for months after two undersea internet cables broke. These fiber optic cables that connect Taiwan to the internet have suffered about 30 such breaks since 2017, mostly from anchors dragged by the many ships in the area.

The war in Ukraine amplified the sense of vulnerability weighing on Taiwan’s leaders. With much of its telecommunications system knocked offline by Russian armaments and cyberattacks, Ukraine’s military has come to depend on a system controlled by Mr. Musk.

“The Ukraine-Russia war gave us a profound reflection,” said Liao Jung-Huang, a director at the government-sponsored Industrial Technology Research Institute. “Even if the cost to build it is high, in a special scenario, the value of having our own constellation is unlimited.”

SpaceX dominates the satellite internet industry, and Mr. Musk has long done business in China through his electric car company, Tesla, which has a big manufacturing operation in Shanghai.

Officials in Taiwan decided it would be best to build a satellite network they could control.

But building a network of satellites manufactured, launched and navigated from Taiwan will require billions of dollars and years of research and testing.

SpaceX has spent five years launching thousands of satellites into what’s known as low-Earth orbit, a zone far closer than where traditional communications satellites fly, beginning roughly 100 miles above Earth. The satellites send signals to terminals on the ground, and being in closer range makes the signal faster.

Mr. Musk has repeatedly proclaimed that in a matter of years, his satellite network will blanket the entire globe with internet service as fast as any provided on land.

He is not the only tech billionaire with this goal. The Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, has also announced plans for a network in low-Earth orbit. But while SpaceX is responsible for more than half of the active satellites orbiting the Earth, Amazon has launched only two.

The British company OneWeb also sent a few hundred satellites to space. But the effort was so costly that it had to be bailed out by the British government before it merged with the European conglomerate Eutelsat into a company called Eutelsat OneWeb.

In Taiwan, the government has said that it wanted to send its first communications satellite to orbit by 2026, with a second to follow within two years, while developing four more test satellites. President Tsai Ing-wen pledged $1.3 billion for Taiwan’s space program to develop the best of these tests into a satellite internet network entirely made and controlled from Taiwan.

While the network is being developed, the Taiwan government has brokered deals for access to existing satellite networks. It has said it planned to deploy 700 terminals capable of receiving satellite signals. In August, it became partners with the Luxembourg company SES, and in November, Chunghwa Telecom announced a partnership with Eutelsat OneWeb. The partnerships could provide layers of backup even after Taiwan gets its own network up and running.

“We need to invest in more than one system,” said Yisuo Tzeng, a researcher at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research, a think tank funded by Taiwan’s defense ministry. “We can’t put all our eggs in one basket.”

More than 40 Taiwanese companies are making parts in the satellite supply chain, Mr. Liao of the Industrial Technology Research Institute said.

A made-in-Taiwan satellite network could do more than give Taiwan an alternative communication system. It could establish Taiwan as a producer of key technology for years to come, just as it is the source of most of the world’s advanced semiconductors.

“Right now we are strong in semiconductors and electronics manufacturing, but space is a new industry where we can leverage that,” said Yu-Jiu Wang, founder of Tron Future, a start-up making the payload for one of the satellites the government is testing.

Among the challenges Taiwan faces is the expense of the rockets that launch the satellites. Most rockets can be used only once and require enormous amounts of fuel, making the cost too high for all but the wealthiest governments to experiment with.

Every Taiwanese satellite that went to space from 2005 to 2016 was launched in the United States, said Yen-Sen Chen, founder of the rocket launch company TiSpace, who spent more than a decade at the predecessor to the Taiwan Space Agency.

In the past year, Taiwanese research and weather satellites have been launched by the French company Arianespace, as well as SpaceX.

Perhaps no entity has devoted more resources to developing rockets than SpaceX.

It has become so unavoidable that it even sends competitors’ payloads into space. In December, Mr. Bezos’s project said some of its satellites would go up on three future Falcon 9 launches.

Taipei has been exploring ways to acquire satellite internet technology since 2018, including in talks with SpaceX. But Mr. Musk balked at a requirement that any foreign entity involved in communications infrastructure be a joint venture with a local partner that would hold a majority stake. Mr. Musk considered this “totally unacceptable,” said Hsu Chih-hsiang, a researcher at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research. SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment.

The talks did not result in any partnership with SpaceX.

Last month, Representative Mike Gallagher, Republican of Wisconsin, asserted that by not making Starlink available in Taiwan, SpaceX could be in breach of its contract to make the service accessible to the U.S. government worldwide, according to a letter reviewed by The New York Times.

SpaceX is in compliance with all of its U.S. government contracts, the company responded in a post on X.

When asked about the prospects of any collaboration with SpaceX, Taiwan’s Ministry of Digital Affairs said in an emailed statement that it would “evaluate the possibility of cooperation” with any satellite operator, as long as the operator was “in compliance with Taiwan’s national security and information security regulations.”

Mr. Musk’s deep business links in China have also raised concerns in Taiwan. China is Tesla’s largest market outside of the United States.

The Chinese government loosened longstanding curbs on foreign ownership of companies and doled out lucrative incentives ahead of Tesla setting up its Shanghai Gigafactory. And he has made comments endorsing the Chinese Communist Party’s stance on Taiwan.

“What if we relied on Starlink and Musk decided to cut down because of pressure from China, because he has China’s market at stake?” asked Mr. Tzeng at the defense think tank. “We have to take that into consideration.”


New York Times, 2024



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