China got on the bandwagon to provide global satellite internet

Wifi everywhere.
Wifi everywhere.
Image: Reuters/Thomas Peter
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Over the weekend, China launched a satellite into low-earth orbit, the first step of a plan to provide global satellite internet to people who still don’t have reliable access.

Nearly 3.8 billion people are unconnected to the internet, and women and rural poor are particularly affected.

The satellite, called Hongyun-1, took off at China’s national launching site Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on Saturday (Dec. 22). Hongyun-1, or “rainbow cloud,” is the first of 156 satellites of the same name developed by state-owned spacecraft maker China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC). A Long March 11 rocket, made by another state-owned firm, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, carried the Hongyun-1.

CASIC intends to launch all the Hongyun satellites by around 2022 to form a constellation that will improve internet access in remote parts of China, and eventually in developing countries, a plan first announced in 2016. Most of the satellites will operate 1,000 kilometers  (620 miles) above the earth, far lower than satellites are typically placed. The project is “moving the internet currently on the ground into the sky,” said Hou Xiufeng, a spokesperson for CASIC, “It’s China’s first true low-orbit communication satellite… The launch will greatly boost commercial space.”

China is increasingly configuring its global Belt-and-Road infrastructure plan to involve digital infrastructure, raising some concerns about the idea of a country known for its heavily policed internet being the key to connectivity and data in other nations. China this year advanced its Beidou system, China’s answer to the US Global Positioning System, or GPS.

China’s move comes as a number of companies look at fixing satellite internet, which has the potential to give people access to the internet no matter where they are on earth, bridging the limits of cable infrastructure. It’s been around for a while but service hasn’t been great—it’s seen slow upload speeds due to satellite distance, and data caps because of limited numbers of satellites providing the service.

The most ambitious reinvention of satellite access, SpaceX’s Starlink project, is on an entirely differently scale from China’s Hongyun project. SpaceX is looking at putting some 12,000 satellites into operation at altitudes between 335 and 346 km. It won approval for 7,000 launches in November from the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates communications services in the US, and in March gave the company the green light to put 4,425 satellites in orbit.

SpaceX has launched two test satellites this year, and will launch the first batch of the constellation by the end of 2019 with the aim of starting the service, which it expects to eventually be very profitable, in 2020.