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Why Taiwan is building a satellite network without Elon Musk| GuyWhoKnowsThings

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

Starlink has enabled military, power plants, and medical workers to maintain crucial online connections when primary infrastructure fails in emergencies, such as an earthquake in Tonga and The Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Taiwanese officials face constant reminders that their communications infrastructure must be able to withstand a crisis. The island democracy lies 80 miles from China, where leaders have vowed to use force if necessary to assert that Taiwan is part of their territory.

Taiwan suffers periodic cyber attacks and almost daily raids in its waters and airspace by the People's Liberation Army, which has been created in recent years.

And Taiwan's infrastructure is fragile. Last year, the outlying islands of Matsu, overlooking the Chinese coast, suffered from a spotty internet connection 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 due to anchors dragged by the numerous ships in the area.

The war in Ukraine amplified the sense of vulnerability weighing on Taiwan's leaders. With much of its telecommunications system offline due to Russian weaponry and cyberattacks, Ukraine's military has come to rely on a system controlled by Musk.

“The war between Ukraine and Russia made us reflect deeply,” said Liao Jung-Huang, director of the government-sponsored Industrial Technology Research Institute. “Even if the cost of building it is high, in a special scenario, the value of having our own constellation is unlimited.”

SpaceX dominates the satellite internet industry and Musk has long done business in China through his electric car company, Tesla, which has a large manufacturing operation in Shanghai. Taiwanese officials decided it would be best to build a network of satellites 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 is known as 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, the signal is faster.

Musk has repeatedly proclaimed that within years, his satellite network will cover the entire world with internet service as fast as that provided on the ground.

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

The British company OneWeb 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 being merged with European conglomerate Eutelsat into a company called Eutelsat OneWeb.

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

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

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

A made-in-Taiwan satellite network could do more than give Taiwan an alternative communication system. It could establish Taiwan as a key technology producer for years to come, just as it is the source of 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 take advantage of that,” said Yu-Jiu Wang, founder of Tron Future, a startup that makes the payload for one of the government satellites. Its testing.

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

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

Last year, French company Arianespace and SpaceX launched Taiwanese meteorological and research satellites.

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

It has become so inevitable that it even sends competitors' payloads into space. In December, Bezos' project said some of its satellites would be installed in three future Falcon 9 launches.

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

The talks did not result in any partnership with SpaceX.

Last month, Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., claimed that by not making Starlink available in Taiwan, SpaceX could be breaching its contract to make the service accessible to the US government around the world. , according to a letter reviewed by The New York Times. .

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

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 “complies with Taiwan’s National Security and Information Security Standards.”

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 loosened long-standing restrictions on foreign ownership of companies and doled out lucrative incentives before Tesla set up its Gigafactory in Shanghai. And he has made comments supporting the Chinese Communist Party's stance on Taiwan.

“What if we trusted Starlink and Musk decided to cut back because of pressure from China, because he has the Chinese market at stake?” Mr. Tzeng asked at the defense think tank. “We have to take that into account.”

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