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Taiwan builds satellite network without Elon Musk

In Taiwan, the government is rushing to do what no country or even company has been able to do: build an alternative to Starlink, the satellite Internet service operated by Elon Musk's rocket company, EspaceX.

Starlink enabled military, power plants, and medical personnel to maintain crucial online connections when primary infrastructure failed during emergencies, such as an earthquake in Tonga And Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Taiwanese officials are constantly reminded that their communications infrastructure must be able to withstand a crisis. This island democracy is located 80 miles from China, where leaders have vowed to use force if necessary to assert that Taiwan is part of its territory.

Taiwan is regularly the victim of cyberattacks and almost daily incursions in its waters and airspace by the People's Liberation Army, which was formed in recent years.

And Taiwan's infrastructure is fragile. Last year, the outer islands of Matsu, within sight of the Chinese coast, endured spotty internet connections for months after two underwater internet cables broke. These fiber optic cables which connect Taiwan to the Internet have suffered around thirty ruptures of this type since 2017, mainly because of the anchors dragged by the numerous ships in the area.

The war in Ukraine has amplified the feeling of vulnerability weighing on Taiwanese leaders. With much of its telecommunications system knocked out of service by Russian weapons and cyberattacks, the Ukrainian military has come to depend on a system controlled by Mr. Musk.

“The war between Ukraine and Russia has given us deep reflection,” said Liao Jung-Huang, director of the government-sponsored Industrial Technology Research Institute. “Even if the cost of building it is high, in a particular 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 major manufacturing plant in Shanghai. Taiwanese authorities decided it would be better to build a satellite network that they could control.

But building a network of satellites manufactured, launched and flown 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 called low-Earth orbit, an area much closer than where traditional communications satellites fly, starting about 100 miles above Earth. Satellites send signals to terminals on the ground, and being closer makes the signal faster.

Mr. Musk has repeatedly proclaimed that within a few years his satellite network would cover the entire planet with Internet service as fast as any terrestrial service.

He's not the only tech billionaire with this goal. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos also announced plans to create a network in low Earth orbit. But even if SpaceX is responsible for more than half active satellites in orbit around the Earth, Amazon has spear only two.

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

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

While the network is being developed, the Taiwanese government has negotiated agreements for access to existing satellite networks. It said it plans to deploy 700 terminals capable of receive satellite signals. In August, it became a partner of Luxembourg-based SES and in November, Chunghwa Telecom announced a partnership with Eutelsat OneWeb. The partnerships could provide backup layers even once Taiwan builds its own network.

“We need to invest in more than one system,” said Yisuo Tzeng, a researcher at the Institute of 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 make parts of the satellite supply chain, said Liao of the Industrial Technology Research Institute.

A Taiwan-made satellite network could do more than provide Taiwan with an alternative communications system. This could make Taiwan a producer of key technologies for years to come, just as it is the country that produces most of the world's advanced semiconductors.

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

Among the challenges facing Taiwan is the cost of the rockets that launch the satellites. Most rockets can only be used once and require enormous amounts of fuel, making the cost too high for all but the richest governments.

All Taiwanese satellites that went into space between 2005 and 2016 were launched in the United States, said Yen-Sen Chen, founder of rocket launch company TiSpace, who spent more than a decade at its predecessor. the Taiwan Space Agency.

Last year, Taiwanese research and meteorological satellites were launched by the French company Arianespace, as well as SpaceX.

Perhaps no entity has devoted more resources to rocket development than SpaceX.

It has become so essential that it even sends competitors' payloads into space. In December, Mr. Bezos' plan called for some of his satellites to be launched on three future Falcon 9 launches.

Taipei has been exploring ways to acquire satellite internet technology since 2018, including in discussions with SpaceX. But Mr. Musk has been reluctant to require any foreign entity involved in communications infrastructure to be a joint venture with a local partner that would have a majority stake. Mr. Musk called this “completely 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 discussions did not result in any partnership with SpaceX.

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

SpaceX is honoring all its contracts with the US government, the company responded in a post on.

Asked about the prospects of possible 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, provided the operator is “in line with Taiwan’s national security and national security.” information security regulations.

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

The Chinese government eased long-standing restrictions on foreign ownership of companies and doled out lucrative incentives before Tesla set up its Shanghai Gigafactory. And he made comments endorsing the Chinese Communist Party's position on Taiwan.

“What if we rely on Starlink and Musk decides to reduce his emissions because of pressure from China, because he has the Chinese market at stake?” » asked Mr Tzeng at the defense think tank. “We have to take that into consideration.”

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