Starlink's latent China crisis could spark a whole new world of warcraft
The politics of a global decentralised high-speed public internet service
Column 2020 was, by general consent, a bit naff. Everyone moped around not doing much. Everyone except Elon Musk, who pushed some 800 radiating routers into low-earth orbit (LEO) atop his personal fleet of reusable space rockets. As you do.
This year he's already lofted another 200 Starlink satellites, including the first few with frickin' laser links. At 60 birds a throw and a launch cadence of roughly once a week, Starlink is set to hit its first operational target of more than 4,000 orbiters by the end of 2021.
Such relentless industrial production line performance masks the many levels on which Starlink is an enormous – and potentially dangerous – experiment. Not just to Musk, although the financial model is murky. How much each launch actually costs isn't clear; SpaceX doesn't have to show its internal accounting and nobody has run a fleet of reusable boosters before. But it's very obvious that if you don't have your own fleet of recyclable rocketry, you won't be able to compete at Starlink's level.
The network topology isn't clear either, nor is the regulatory framework for a truly global, public access, high-performance internet service. And it is the combination of these two experiments that is most interesting, with the greatest potential to provide wild success – or a spectacular kindling of a new era of warfare. You know, the sort with real guns.
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Let's start with the topology. The basic idea is clear enough: each satellite supports multiple electronically steerable microwave links that connect to Starlink's customers' ground terminals. The links are then handed on to a big fat gateway station with a big fat pipe to the internet. Because Starlink is a LEO system, the satellites scud across the sky in a few minutes, so the user beams have to be tracked at both ends, but with enough satellites there'll always be a few in view.
LEO also has a performance advantage in that it's potentially the fastest feasible wide-area internet technology going. Radio waves travel about twice as fast as fibre-optic bound light so in many cases a Starlink connection over any distance will have lower latency than terrestrial links. Starlink capitalises on this by relaying links between satellites when a ground station isn't easily accessible. In 2022, Musk recently said, all new satellites will have lasers to do just this. Thus, as well as the very rural market where broadband isn't, Starlink becomes attractive to the financial markets, who'll pay top dollar to shave a millisecond off their high frequency trading links. It's not just the countryside where you find hedges.
Let's skip forward to the end of 2022, when the majority of the 10k-plus planned satellites will probably be up supplying the whole global market. Normally, if you want to run an internet service in a country, you have to have a company there to pacify the bureaucrats. Starlink's happily done this with the UK so it'll probably keep that Pirate Bay block – in space, nobody can hear you stream.
The fun comes, as ever, in China, the world leader in mucking about. It does not like the open internet; it loves the filtered, monitored, machine of state-controlled internet. It has already said it will be building its own global orbital 13k-strong fleet of internet satellites. And by no coincidence, in the same timeframe of 2025-ish, China plans to have a reusable version of its Long March 8 rocket, burning cryogenic oxygen and kerosene just like Musk.
The chances are astronomically high that China will not let Elon play within its borders, for commercial and ideological reasons. If China then markets its own system globally, which it will hugely want to do, then we're into the Chinese state-subsidised competitor versus the blocked free-market American, only with direct access to everyone. You thought Huawei was a bit of a firework?
But wait, there's more. While everyone's been concentrating on the frickin' lasers as Starlink's killer feature, researchers have pointed out that it can be just as efficient to turn users' ground stations into inter-satellite relays too. Instead of shooting lasers at each other, these satellites find idle bandwidth on users within mutual range, and talk to each other that way. This ad-hoc mesh system can vastly improve coverage even when there are no gateways in the immediate vicinity, especially when combined with laser links to form an optimal path. The total bandwidth and coverage into areas with no gateways is hugely enhanced.
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So what? Well, it looks as if you can get a good link from the ground to a Starlink satellite when it's just 25 degrees above the horizon – which means you can connect to a ground station in one hop over a thousand kilometres long. Which means that most of mainland China, potentially all of it, will be accessible by Starlink without needing any satellites overhead the country at all.
That spells trouble. If banned, Starlink will turn off downlinks from satellites over China. If it did not, China would have an excuse to jam them – not a particularly good one, and it would massively heighten any tensions, but technically doable and politically survivable. It gets a lot trickier if China decides to jam all Starlink satellites within range, not just overhead. That will extend a circle of denial thousands of kilometres around the Middle Kingdom – something that China's neighbours will not like. In the case of India, where fast rural bandwidth is at the heart of many economic plans, the not-liking already extends to a smouldering border war in all but name. That would not go well.
China can and will ban ownership and use of Starlink radios by its citizens, but it's very difficult and expensive to police such things – much harder than exerting control over a physical infrastructure you own and run. Especially when you're encouraging your citizens to use what will almost certainly be a close clone of Starlink. And China can make it very hard for its citizens to have Starlink accounts – but if you have open net access and crypto, so what?
There is no doubt that providing a new global decentralised high-speed public internet service will have political dimensions. Elon knows this, and knows that if he does play hardball the Chinese EV market won't be Tesla-shaped. He could stop steering beams into China from outside. There are a lot of variables. But if you think that Starlink will just mean a lot of nice low-latency first-person virtual shoot-em-ups from log cabins in Alaska, think again. The real shoot-em-ups may be on their way. ®