Taiwan Looks to Ukraine Playbook in Race to Build Satellite Internet

Taiwan Looks to Ukraine Playbook in Race to Build Satellite Internet

Tech News

Now, Taiwan is looking to Ukraine’s playbook as it seeks to fortify its communications systems.

Taiwan’s digital communications rely on subsea cables, all of which make landfall at one of four points on the main island. The locations of these are publicly available, making them easy targets. Ukraine has managed to stay connected to high-speed internet in the face of Russia’s onslaught by using satellites, allowing more effective coordination of resistance—and enabling Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s regular livestreamed appeals for more military aid.

Taiwan, with a population of almost 24 million, has worked to improve its military and cybersecurity capabilities, extending mandatory military service last year, purchasing more weapons and in February opening a new national cybersecurity research institute. The government now emphasizes communications resilience as a core security issue, with a priority on reinforcing existing infrastructure and systems, ensuring ample spare capacity and investing in backup systems that include satellite broadband.

Taiwan’s space agency is spearheading the efforts to develop indigenous satellite broadband. TASA, as the agency is known, aims to launch the first satellite to low-Earth orbit in 2025. Taiwan plans to spend the equivalent of about $820 million over the next decade on developing space-related industries, including satellites.

Fighting a war relies on command and control, and that in turn relies on communications, said Ting-sheng Lee, a retired general who heads the Institute for National Defense and Security Research, a Taiwan military-backed think tank.

“Not a day goes by that Taiwan doesn’t prepare for its own defense,” he said, adding that Taiwan is also exploring low-cost technology, such as using balloons or drones to provide backup capabilities. “We do all the preparations so as to deter an invasion by China,” Lee said.

The island’s geography leaves it vulnerable to isolation, a fact highlighted by the internet outage in Matsu, an archipelago that is closer to the Chinese mainland than to Taiwan. Matsu’s two cables were severed in apparently unrelated accidents in early February, the first by a Chinese fishing vessel and the second by a Chinese cargo ship, according to Taiwan’s government.

Last August, after a visit by then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Chinese warships encircled Taiwan, simulating a blockade that underscored the island’s global importance as the source of around 90% of the world’s most advanced semiconductors.

China has also been speeding up its deployment of satellites in lower orbits, a mission brought into sharp focus by Ukraine’s use of Elon Musk’s Starlink broadband system. Within days of Russia’s invasion, the low-Earth-orbit satellite network began servicing Ukraine, though it later restricted direct military uses such as locating targets for drone attacks.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen was “very interested” in what Starlink might offer, U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R., Texas) told Fox News in April, after leading a bipartisan delegation to the island. A spokeswoman for Tsai declined to comment.

On a visit to London last month, Taiwan’s digital minister, Audrey Tang, toured the headquarters of OneWeb, a partly U.K.-owned company that recently completed deployment of a fleet of satellites in low-Earth orbit. Tang said she expected a variety of international industry providers would contribute to Taiwan’s communications resilience. OneWeb declined to comment on whether the company is interested in entering the Taiwan market.

As a first step, the government aims to install more than 700 terminals across Taiwan by the end of next year that can receive signals from space and act as “hot spots” to provide backup internet access. The project will be led by a research institute—to be announced soon—that will identify suitable satellite providers to work with.

Taiwan’s relatively small size and already high mobile phone penetration rates mean the commercial potential in developing a dedicated and costly satellite-based broadband network is limited, said Kenny Huang, chief executive of Taiwan Network Information Center, a government-affiliated cybersecurity and internet-domain-registration organization. The government will likely look to nurturing companies that supply the industry, building on the strength of its semiconductor sector, he said.

Starting next year, Taiwan’s government will also roll out a four-year “disaster roaming” program expected to cost about $200 million that will allow cellphone users to switch to another service provider in an emergency, in case one operator’s cell towers are destroyed in an attack.

Taipei has also renewed its focus on the resilience of its seabed cables.

After suffering days of internet blackout, Matsu residents had their service partially restored by a backup system using high-powered microwave radio. Full service was restored when one of the damaged cables was fixed at the end of March, a delay caused by Taiwan’s reliance on private contractors to send a maintenance ship.

After the outage, Taiwan’s main telecom provider Chunghwa Telecom accelerated efforts to upgrade its microwave radio system, and lawmakers are pressing the company to develop its own cable-repair capacity. The government also increased prison sentences and fines for damaging the undersea-cable infrastructure. Cables linking Matsu and Taiwan’s main island have been severed more than 20 times since 2017, according to Chunghwa Telecom.

Local media reported in April that the government is planning to build an additional landing terminal—where subsea cables connect to a country’s terrestrial network—in southern Taiwan and lay two more cables by 2025. Three of the four places where cables come ashore are in the north, leaving the southern half of the main island—including the main port and industrial center of Kaohsiung—dependent on just one landing terminal.

Following her return from the U.K., Digital Minister Tang visited Matsu for a test of a backup system, which provided a smooth transition between satellite and microwave technologies for an online call, according to a government release.

Still, Taiwan is unlikely to find a backup solution that can completely compensate for the loss of undersea cables, because of their much higher capacity to carry data than satellites.

“No satellite constellation can replace the fiber optic cable,” said Yisuo Tzeng, an analyst who is also at the Institute for National Defense. “But as long as there is enough capacity to transmit our strategic communications to the outside world, that will do.”

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