China Satcom’s LEO, HTS projects driven by desire not to fall behind foreign counterparts

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JAKARTA, Indonesia — China’s state-owned fleet operator is making forward-leaning investments in high-throughput satellites and a low-Earth-orbit constellation without worrying, at least initially, about whether these projects are backed by sound business plans.

More important to China Satcom is making sure it has the technologies needed to stay at the forefront of satellite communications.

If other nations and companies are going to build large high-throughput satellites (HTS) and constellations of low-Earth-orbit (LEO) satellites, so will China, according to Yao Fahai, vice president of China Satcom, a state-owned company that operates a fleet of 10 geostationary satellites primarily serving customers in China and neighboring countries.

Fahai shared his mindset at the APSAT 2018 conference here, while also announcing China Satcom’s desire to follow its first HTS satellite, launched last year, with two more in the near future.

“We may order two more bigger HTS satellites,” he said during a July 3 panel discussion. “We are hoping we could launch in 2021, or 2022, [with] the first to be launched in 2021. Maybe we could have 150 [gigabits per second]. The second one maybe around 200 Gbps. We hope we could catch up with the new trend.”

China’s HTS gambit

China Satcom, in addition to its 10-satellite fleet, is a shareholder of Hong Kong-based APT Satellite, which operates five geostationary satellites. Fahai said China Satcom has two satellites launching next year: the traditional ChinaSat-6C satellite and ChinaSat-18, a hybrid satellite with traditional Ku-band wide beams and high-throughput Ka-band spot beams.

China Satcom’s first HTS satellite, ChinaSat-16, launched last May on a Chinese Long March-3B rocket and features 20 Gbps of Ka-band capacity.

Last year at APSAT 2017, China Satcom Senior Sales Manager Zhang Yu explained the experimental nature of ChinaSat-16.

“In China, we already delivered fiber optics to almost 80 percent [of the population], so how can we still need an HTS satellite in China? Nobody knows this answer, so right now, we designed the first Ka-satellite with 20 Gbps and we want to test and we want to see how is [the] market in China,” he said.

In a July 3 interview with SpaceNews, Fahai said ChinaSat-18 will complete the company’s HTS coverage of China.

Fahai said China Satcom is closely monitoring geostationary HTS and LEO constellations.  China Satcom’s HTS  may have started as an experiment, but has since grown into a valued means to deliver broadband in China. Fahai said China Satcom is using its HTS capacity to fulfill universal service obligations the Chinese government is pursuing, bringing internet to areas unreached by cell towers and fiber. In the future, airplane Wi-Fi “may be the major commercial use of HTS,” he said.

Fahai said China Satcom is flexible with its goals. China Satcom’s 2021 HTS satellite could have more than 200 Gbps if needed. “Maybe 300,” he said.

It is difficult to say what a “normal” HTS satellite will look like even a few years from now. Those launched in recent years range from Avanti’s 75- to 100-Gbps Hylas-4 to Viasat’s 260-Gbps ViaSat-2. HTS satellites under construction range from Eutelsat’s 75-Gbps Konnect satellite (formerly the Africa Broadband Satellite) to Viasat’s 1 terabit per second ViaSat-3 series.

Even so, China Satcom is at least somewhat insulated from the international HTS pressures by being one of the few satellite operators with access to China’s domestic market. Viasat, while planning its 1 Tbps ViaSat-3 for the Asia Pacific, has expressed reservations about counting on China as a market because of difficulty surmounting regulatory barriers.

Joining the race to LEO

China’s convictions on LEO broadband constellations are less certain than those on geostationary HTS.

Fahai said China Satcom is part of a joint venture for China’s Hongyan constellation, which is progressing despite reservations about its viability.

“This year we hope we can launch a cluster of satellites,” he said. “Then next year we may launch six more to join the system. Finally, maybe we could have more than 200 such satellites in orbit to provide LEO broadband services. But the two main problems for this LEO, one is the capital, the other is the business model.”

Fahai said China feels the need to start with the constellation to ensure that it has the ability to operate such a network before getting crowded out by competitors.

“If we don’t do it, many, many LEO constellations they will put into the sky. There is no room for you,” he said.

Fahai said the Hongyan constellation will require funding from the Chinese government or private investors to reach its full potential.

Taking a stance that private investors and publicly traded companies would have a hard time justifying, Fahai said that getting the ball rolling starts now regardless.

“In our case, we need to do first, then we consider how to earn money,” he said.