“As China pursues ambitions for its own LEO broadband network, the United States could lose its competitive advantage”
WASHINGTON — In the global race to deploy high-throughput constellations in low Earth orbit, the United States holds a major advantage. However, the U.S. government should “enact policies and incentives to keep U.S. businesses internationally competitive,” particularly in the face of China, according to a new report published on December 14 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The study, funded by satellite broadband companies Amazon Kuiper and SpaceX, says economic and regulatory issues are creating competitive pressures for US industry.
“As China continues to fBesides its ambitions for its own LEO broadband network, which could fall somewhere in the gray area between commercial and government, the United States could lose its competitive edge,” the report said.
China is building LEO systems for its own use, but also plans to provide service in countries in Asia, South America and Africa that currently lack extensive internet infrastructure and where US companies are also competing for business, the study adds. China takes advantage of its Belt and Road Initiative increase the market share of its LEO constellations.
“US leaders should aim to increase soft power across the globe by working with commercial companies capable of successfully operating broadband internet constellations,” the report said. “With China’s strong economic presence in many Belt and Road partner countries, it is well positioned to negotiate regulatory concessions for its domestic LEO system while discouraging adoption of US commercial services.”
Due to the huge start-up costs of building and deploying a functioning LEO constellation – estimated at $5-10 billion – US companies need more agile regulatory practices to be able to compete internationally, according to the report.
“Regulatory agencies with jurisdiction over space and space-related activities are struggling to keep pace with the growth of the private sector in managing these constellations, a task that is becoming increasingly difficult,” indicates the report. There is a need for “updated regulations and an increase in the capacity of the regulatory review process”.
The regulatory process holds huge stakes for SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon’s Project Kuiper.
As of November 2022, Starlink has launched over 3,500 satellites and provides coverage in over 50 markets in North America, South America, Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
Kuiper plans to launch 1,618 satellites by 2026 and deploy a total of about 3,200.
SpaceX has sought Federal Communications Commission (FCC) clearance for another 30,000 satellites and has received clearance for 7,500 so far.
China has asked the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to operate a fleet of 12,992 satellites in LEO. The state-funded SatNet plans to establish a space center for the production of reusable satellites and launch vehicles, the CSIS report said. “SatNet must be an essential part of China’s political goal to be a leader in cutting-edge technologies around the world.
Constellations of OneWeb, Amazon, Telesat and China SatNet could together add more than 90,000 satellites into Earth orbit.
FCC commissioner backs study findings
Speaking at CSIS to discuss the study, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr said “this latest generation of low Earth orbit satellites is absolutely a game-changer.”
He said American industry must remain competitive. “There is no technology sector that we Americans should cede leadership to the Chinese Communist Party. The CCP has set itself the goal of dominating many technology sectors, but one of them is this system of satellites in low Earth orbit.
In the US government, he added, “we need to give our private sector the tools to compete and win.”
For the FCC, this means “making sure that we have the spectrum available and that we are not introducing new services that could cause harmful interference to these technologies.” More importantly, we need to go faster.
Carr said the FCC plans to create a space office “to help speed things up.” Congress also intervenes. He expressed his support for a house energy and commerce committee bipartisan bill introduced on December 8 reform the FCC’s satellite licensing rules.
“Basically at the FCC, we need to move faster on our approvals,” he said. The agency must also address concerns about US companies having to disclose competition secrets sooner than if they were allowed in other countries.
“We’re going to make sure that’s not a competitive disadvantage,” Carr said.
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