China is speeding up satellite internet development, aiming to launch more satellites to build up its own communication satellite constellation.
China first included satellite internet as a key focus of its "new infrastructure" policy support in 2020. By 2023, satellite direct-to-car and direct-to-phone technologies began to debut, marking the beginning of the era of mega-constellations.
China is still behind industry pioneers like Elon Musk’s Starlink, which plans for 42,000 satellites for its satellite network. China has disclosed plans for approximately 25,000 low-Earth orbit satellites. Additionally, Amazon and Boeing also have plans for building its own satellite constellations, with Amazon aiming to have 3,236 satellites.
From January to July this year, a total of 1,883 satellites were launched globally, of which 1,435 were low-Earth orbit satellites, accounting for about 76% of the total launches.
Representing as a kind of space race, many countries and companies are competing to launch more satellites in space. It’s a business that requires a certain scale, and the principle for the competition of orbital resources is "first come, first served."
Starlink has launched a total of 5,420 satellites. China said in July that it would begin building a constellation of 300 satellites in very-low Earth orbit late this year. Musk’s Starlink needs at least tens of thousands of satellites to achieve global signal coverage without blind spots, leaving an increasingly urgent time window for global followers.
The large-scale construction of commercial constellations will drive a rapid increase in the number of global satellite launches. CITIC Securities predicted that in the next five years, China’s low-Earth orbit satellite launches are expected to enter an "exponential" growth phase, with the continuous reduction in satellite manufacturing costs being a prerequisite for this explosion.
Some Chinese companies are emerging to play a pivotal role in this explosive growth.
Gee Space, a subsidiary of Chinese car maker Geely Group, claimed to have achieved mass production of its satellite communication chips, automotive-grade high-precision positioning chips, and modules, which will be equipped in various car models under Geely’s brands.
Gee Space launched the first nine satellites of the Geely Future Travel Constellation in 2022. By 2025, it plans to complete the deployment of the first phase of the constellation, consisting of 72 low-Earth orbit satellites. Integrating satellite communication, navigation enhancement, and remote sensing AI technology, it is expected to be able to provide "centimeter-level" high-precision positioning for autonomous driving, while also empowering intelligent connectivity and smart driving.
In September, the Zeekr 001 FR was officially launched as a mass-produced passenger car with satellite communication capabilities, supporting two-way satellite messaging and calls. Zeekr is an EV brand and subsidiary of Geely Group.
The company also claims to have self-developed satellite communication chip utilizing a 22nm process and features an integrated RF baseband SoC design. It supports satellite communication needs in industries such as mobile phones and automobiles, laying the foundation for an integrated space-to-earth network.
The ‘vehicle-end’ integrated design of its high-throughput satellite internet terminal uses phased array antenna technology and incorporates a powerful multi-mode satellite communication module. Compatible with both high and low orbit satellite communication capabilities, it enables cars to function as mobile 4G/5G base stations, allowing users to stay online and connected anywhere in the world.
Moreover, the Huawei Mate 60 Pro marked the first mass-market smartphone with satellite calling capabilities in China. As the curtain on 6G has gradually been raised and expectations of direct satellite connections to cars and phones becoming more commonplace, Huawei is set to play a critical role in China’s pursuit of satellite communications.
A cohort of rising Chinese space launch startups, such as LandSpace, iSpace, OneSpace, and Galactic Energy, are emerging to offer alternative launch services, complementing China’s state-run space programs.