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The US-China Technology Cold War Battle Over Optical Communication in Space

The United States and its allies are in a technology cold war with China and its allies. This is evidenced by major battles like the US ban on Huawei and China’s drive for technological independence and their global infrastructure program to create a digital silk road. (The cold war began under Trump, but President Biden is continuing it).

There are other, less well-known battles like the battle over optical communication in space. For example, Mynaric, a 20-year old German optical communication company with a cutting edge line of space, aircraft, and ground terminals, was forced to take sides in the tech cold war:

  • November 19, 2018: Mynaric opens a new site in Shanghai, China, as a consequence of the high demand for its products and the rapidly-expanding Asian aerospace communications market.
  • July 31, 2020: Mynaric announced yesterday that, with immediate effect, it is to cease its business activities in China.

Optical communication links between satellites will be an important technology for forthcoming broadband Intenet and Earth observation satellites, and China might have dealt with Mynaric or another US-ally supplier, but since they cannot, they will have to develop their own optical communication capability. For example, China’s BeiDou—their GPS—is running inter-satellite and satellite-ground station experiments with optical terminals.

BeiDou is state-owned, and Blaine Curcio of the Dongfang Hour podcast recently described a commercial optical-communication startup called HiStarlink—one of many new, relatively small, Chinese companies focused on a specific space-related technology or sub-system and often subsidized by a local government. He also linked to an article on HiStarlink and I relied on the Google translation of that article for further details.

The five-month-old, venture-funded company will specialize in low-power, miniaturized space-borne optical communication terminals. They have already developed an optical transceiver capable of high-speed transmission at distances up to 5,000 km and a dual-channel communication board supporting up to 80 Gbps. Their plan is to complete on-orbit verification of communication capabilities in the first quarter of 2022 and inter-satellite communication by the end of the year.

Company founder Dr. Tan Jun calls low-Earth orbit Internet service “subversive” because the market is “huge.” He also said that China urgently needs inter-satellite interconnection more than any other country because of the lack of access to global ground stations. The company is staffed by young people from prestigious universities and institutes and Curcio speculates that the communication board and transceiver had been developed before the company was formed. The article concludes with a short overview of the foreign competitors, including Mynaric and SpaceX, and domestic developments, including inter-satellite laser links for the Hongyun project.

(Curcio’s Dongfang Hour co-host Jean Deville points out that a lack of Chinese ground station capacity has motivated the formation of another new company, Hualu Space, that hopes to use optical links between low-Earth orbit and geostationary satellites to relay Earth observation data to the ground).

HiStarlink is far behind Mynaric’s products and organization, but they will catch up. As Curcio noted, they have smart people working on optical terminals, which will be a critical component of the Gouwang Internet constellation which has been given high priority. That will give them political support, but perhaps the best thing they have going is the cold war itself—they will not have to face strong international competition. The cold war, like tariffs, offers protectionist cover for domestic industry.

By Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University

He has been on the faculties of the University of Lund, Sweden and the University of Southern California, and worked for IBM and the System Development Corporation. Larry maintains a blog on Internet applications and implications at cis471.blogspot.com and follows Cuban Internet development at laredcubana.blogspot.com.

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