US years ahead in LEO broadband, but 6G battle looms

Here's one tech sector where the US is streaking away from China: low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite broadband.

The USA, led by the private sector, not only has a commanding lead in the sheer number of satellites but, thanks to Elon Musk's Starlink, the gap is widening.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists database, 2,788 of the 4,550 satellites in operating orbit are US-owned, with 431 Chinese and 167 Russian. More than a quarter of that total has been put into orbit this year, with the US supplying 891 of the 1,178 new craft.

Notably, the US satellite fleet is overwhelmingly commercial – 85% are owned by the private sector, with the military, civil and government making up the rest.

The biggest contributor is Starlink, which launched another 13 satellites earlier this month – its 25th mission this year – to take its total satellite population to 1,800. The service has around 140,000 users in 20 countries, with 750,000 pre-orders, the company said in a recent FCC filing.

By contrast, China is years behind in LEO broadband, its plodding strategy driven by the national government.

It is plotting two state-owned satellite fleets, the bigger of them to be operated by a new national satellite company formed just seven months ago, China Satellite Network.

Usually known as China SatNet, it appears to be planning a constellation of 12,992 satellites, as indicated by spectrum filings with the ITU.

The timetable for its first satellite launch is not clear, and nor are funding or corporate structure. However, analysts point out that the company is number 24 in the national SOE rankings, just behind the big three operators (and ahead of the already licensed China Broadcast Network), making clear the importance placed on it by state leaders.

One problem slowing it down is the lack of launch capacity.

Chinese rockets can usually launch just two or three satellites at a time, with a peak load of ten. The US Falcon 9 rocket can carry dozens, including a record 143 in January this year, while Russia's Soyuz rocket can deliver more than 30.

This is starting to change, however, because the state has eased its monopoly over the rocket and satellite manufacture, bringing new players into the market.

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This has unlocked a flood of cash into the private space sector, scmp.com reports. Last year private space companies raised more than 10 billion yuan (US$1.6 billion) in funds, compared to 1.4 billion yuan ($219 million) in 2016.

Analysts say China sees satellite broadband as important for its Belt Road Initiative – the ambitious plan to supply infrastructure to developing countries in Asia and Africa.

But its strategic priority is satellite integration with 5G and 6G, which may in the long run be a much bigger deal. Terrestrial-satellite integration is expected to be one of the major features of 6G, enabling genuinely ubiquitous global mobile coverage.

China has completed early testing for 5G-satellite integration for a national emergency response service, according to official media.

It also has multiple satellite 6G programs underway, including one at University of Electronic Science and Technology of China in Chengdu, Southwest China, which has built an early prototype that supports downlinks of up to 1 Tbit/s, according to the Wall Street Journal.

This suggests that the 6G race in space could become just as fierce as the ground battle.

Space policy researcher Namrata Goswami says the companies and countries that capture the early orbital slots will be the ones to set the rules and standardize how the market operates.

"Once you become the first country to do it, you set the global standards, you set the rules," she told WSJ.

— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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