EDITORIAL: Safety Critical LEO Service

EDITORIAL: Safety Critical LEO Service

Low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite technology again garnered international attention after Apple introduced a feature in September that allows iPhone 14 users in the US and Canada to send emergency messages from remote locations via of satellites. This comes as Space X’s satellite service Starlink plays a key role in providing internet access in Ukraine amid Russia’s invasion.

In Taiwan, the Big Three telecommunications companies have been preparing to launch satellite broadband services. Although Taiwan has relatively good 4G and 5G network coverage, along with an extensive fiber optic network, some mountainous and remote areas still have spotty internet service.

More importantly, satellite broadband service is a must when considering national security and emergency uses, especially in situations where base stations are damaged and Internet connections are interrupted. LEO satellites have advantages: they operate 36 times closer to Earth than traditional satellites, requiring less time to send and receive information, leading to faster broadband service, even in remote areas.

After a long wait, the Ministry of Digital Affairs last week approved regulations to allow satellite broadband services and said it would start accepting applications from Tuesday next week until December 30 for companies to obtain licenses to offer services on selected frequencies. Given the strict regulations, there is still a long way to go before LEO satellite services are available in Taiwan.

The biggest hurdle is that applicants must be local telecoms operators, according to ministry rules. Ownership by foreign direct investors is capped at 49 percent and 60 percent for a mix of direct and indirect foreign ownership. Chinese investors are prohibited from investing in satellite service providers.

The rules would obviously restrict multinational companies from seeking satellite broadband in Taiwan, as such companies tend to operate wholly owned local subsidiaries to sell satellite broadband services.

For example, Elon Musk’s SpaceX established a wholly owned subsidiary in the Philippines in July and last week launched its Starlink satellite service in collaboration with a local partner. Japan became the first Asian country to roll out satellite-based system services when telecoms operator KDDI announced the service last month, opening up the sector to business and government customers.

Chunghwa Telecom last year expressed a desire to offer SpaceX’s Starlink services in Taiwan, but was prevented from taking further action due to a lack of related regulations. The country’s largest telecom operator said it is constantly exchanging technology views with SpaceX, but there is a slim chance it will offer Starlink services in Taiwan this year. The telecommunications company said it was technologically ready to provide the services, but that regulatory hurdles were a major hurdle.

Chunghwa Telecom has found a solution without SpaceX. The company will today announce new satellite broadband services in conjunction with GPS device provider Garmin. It is to use the US-Swiss company’s satellite technology and the inReach Mini 2 device to help subscribers, especially hikers and campers, navigate with GPS, send and receive text messages and emergency messages, when the mobile services of Chunghwa Telecom are not available.

For LEO services to be available in Taiwan, the government must balance technological advancement and national security.

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