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Taiwan is building a satellite network without Elon Musk

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

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

    Taiwan’s officials are constantly reminded that its communications infrastructure must be able to withstand a crisis. The island democracy is 80 miles from China, whose leaders have vowed to use force if necessary to claim Taiwan as part of its territory.

    Taiwan is subject to regular cyber attacks and  near-daily incursions  into its waters and airspace by the People’s Liberation Army, which has been established in recent years.

    And Taiwan’s infrastructure is fragile. Last year,  the remote Matsu Islands  , overlooking China’s coast, were without internet for several months after two submarine internet cables broke. These fiber-optic cables, which connect Taiwan to the Internet, have suffered about 30 such breaks since 2017, mostly due to anchors pulled by many ships in the area.

    The war in Ukraine has heightened the sense of vulnerability of Taiwan’s leaders. With Russian weaponry and cyberattacks disabling much of its telecommunications system, the Ukrainian military has become dependent on the system controlled by Mr. Musk.

    TA mountain with grass and satellite equipment attached to a pole.

    Telecommunications equipment in Beihang, part of the Matsu Islands, Taiwan. Last year, thousands of residents of Taiwan’s remote islands endured very slow internet speeds for months. Credit… Huizhong Wu/Associated Press

    “The Ukrainian-Russian war gave us a deep reflection,” said Liao Zhong-Huang, director of the government-funded Industrial Technology Research Institute. “Even if the cost of its construction is high, under a special scenario, the value of one’s 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 large manufacturing facility in Shanghai. Officials in Taiwan decided it would be best to build a satellite network that they could control.

    But building a network of satellites built, launched and operated from Taiwan will require billions of dollars and years of research and testing.

    SpaceX has spent five years launching thousands of satellites into so-called low Earth orbit, a zone much closer than where traditional communications satellites fly, starting about 160 miles above Earth. Satellites send signals to ground terminals, and being closer, the signal is transmitted faster.

    Mr. Musk has repeatedly stated that within a few years, his satellite network will cover the entire globe with Internet services as quickly as any terrestrial network.

    He’s not the only tech billionaire with this goal. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos also announced plans to create a network in Earth orbit. But while SpaceX is responsible for  more than half of  the active satellites orbiting Earth, Amazon has launched  just  two.

    The British company OneWeb has also sent several hundred satellites into space. But the effort was so expensive that the British government had to bail it out before it merged with European conglomerate Eutelsat into a company called Eutelsat OneWeb.

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

    People stand around a white screen with wires connected to it.
    In 2022, Ukrainians queued up for satellite Internet access using the Starlink connection. This network, operated by SpaceX, has ensured internet service in conflict and disaster zones around the world. Credit… Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

    While the network is being developed, the Taiwanese government has entered into agreements to access existing satellite networks. It said it plans to deploy 700 terminals capable of  receiving satellite signals  . In August, it became a partner of the Luxembourg company SES, and in November, Chunghwa Telecom announced a partnership with Eutelsat OneWeb. The partnership can provide backup levels even after Taiwan launches its own network.

    “We need to invest in more than one system,” said Isuo Zeng, a research fellow 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 make parts in the satellite supply chain, said Mr. Liao of the Industrial Technology Research Institute.

    A satellite network built in Taiwan can do more than give Taiwan an alternative communications system. This could make Taiwan 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’re strong in semiconductors and electronics, but space is a new industry where we can use that,” said Yu-Jiu Wang, founder of Tron Future, a startup building a payload for one of the government’s satellites. is testing

    Among the challenges facing Taiwan are the costs of rockets that launch satellites. Most missiles can only be used once and require huge amounts of fuel, making the cost too high for all but the wealthiest governments to experiment with.

    Every Taiwanese satellite sent into space between 2005 and 2016 was launched in the United States, said Yen-Seng Chen, founder of the rocket launch company TiSpace, who worked for more than a decade at the predecessor of the Taiwan Space Agency.

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

    Two non-functioning ticket machines at the ferry station with sheets of white paper taped to their screens.
    Ticket machines at a ferry station on Beihang, one of Taiwan’s remote islands, were shut down when internet was lost last year. Credit… Johnson Lai/Associated Press

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

    It has become so inevitable that it even sends competitors’ payloads into space. In December, Mr. Bezos’ project announced that some of its satellites would lift off during  three future Falcon 9 launches  .

    Taipei has been exploring ways to acquire satellite internet technology since 2018, including in talks with SpaceX. But Mr. Musk dropped a requirement that any foreign entity involved in communications infrastructure be a joint venture with a local partner that would have a majority stake. Mr. Musk found that “absolutely unacceptable,” said Hsu Chi-hsian, a research fellow at the Institute for National Defense and Security Studies. SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment.

    The talks did not lead to any partnership with SpaceX.

    Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., said last month that by not making Starlink available in Taiwan, SpaceX could be in breach of its contract to provide the service to the US government worldwide, according to a letter seen by The New York Times. .

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

    Asked about the prospects for any cooperation 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 if the operator “complies with Taiwan’s national security and 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.

    China’s government has loosened long-standing restrictions on foreign ownership of companies and handed out lucrative incentives ahead of the opening of Tesla’s Gigafactory in Shanghai. And he made comments endorsing the Chinese Communist Party’s stance on Taiwan.

    “What if we were relying on Starlink and Musk decided to downsize due to pressure from China because the Chinese market is at stake?” asked Mr Zeng at a defense think tank. “We have to take that into account.”