Let me summarize in a few words what follows: the Digital China New Type Infrastructure (NTI) Satellite Internet subcategory is moving at a pace that seems to match any of the other prioritized NTI digital technologies, and Ukraine may be giving the program a bump. As you’ll see, China is seeking an independent satellite internet design, supported by a domestic industrial supply chain, and likely lifted by the full scope of China’s S&T capabilities (military-civil fusion).
However, unlike some of the other NTI categories and sub-categories, this one has been well covered in English language media over past months, both in Western outlets (see for instance here and here) and PRC outlets (see for instance here and here). There is an exception to the media coverage however. I haven’t noticed Jiutian MSI before in this NTI sub-category, but I should have.
Here’s part of what happened this week in the world of Chinese satellite internet, a Digital China NTI sub-category:
On April 24th (China Space Day), the Beijing-based Chinese aerospace technology firm Jiutian MSI (also known as COMMSAT) released “Who Can Pluck the Stars from the Sky: 2021 Research Report on the China Satellite Internet Industry and (Its) Users” at the inaugural “Zhongguancun Commercial Space Conference (中关村商业航天大会)” in Beijing. The main title of the research report is derived from the Tang dynasty poem “Overnight Stay in a Mountain Temple” by Li Bai. Although it doesn’t add much to the overall focus of this blog, the poem itself is stunning, and it does provide some sense of Jiutian MSI, so I decided to provide a full translation:
The tower is tall enough for me, 危楼高百尺，
To pluck the stars from the sky. 手可摘星辰。
At its top I dare not speak, 不敢高声语，
Lest I alarm the immortals. 恐惊天上人。Li Bai, Overnight Stay in a Mountain Temple 李白, 夜宿山寺 (Translation by 英语翻译古诗: 夜宿山寺)
I should add that in classical Chinese mythology (late Tang dynasty), Jiutian Xuannü (九天玄女) was the goddess of war, sex, and longevity. The same “Jiutian” as Jiutian MSI. Earlier Chinese mythology posited nine layers of heaven (jiutian 九天) with the ninth layer (jiu 九) being the highest. And, of course, this brings us to Sun Tzu. In the Art of War: “A good defender hides under the nine places, and a good attacker moves above the nine heavens.”
I think we begin to have a sense of Xie Tao (谢涛), the Jiutian MSA founder, who you’ll meet below.
OK, now back to the research report. It was co-written by three organizations: (1) Jiutian MSI (九天微星科技发展有限公司); (2) the Institute of New Manufacturing (新制造研究院), subordinate to the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) China Institute for Innovation & Development Strategy (CIIDS; 国家创新与发展战略研究会新制造研究院; and (3) the Beijing-based aerospace firm Hwa Create (华力创通). Among the three, Jiutian MSI has a particularly interesting record.
Jiutian MSI, which has publicly expressed its desire to model itself after Huawei as core supplier, has ties to China’s defense aerospace industry (so potentially another military-civil fusion marker for Digital China), has developed remote sensing microsatellites for Saudi Arabia, and is also involved in the structural and aerodynamic design of UAVs and their flight and ground control systems. All interesting, but where Jiutian MSI really stands out is as a key participant in Digital China’s New Type Infrastructure (Information Infrastructure/Communications Networks) Satellite Internet subcategory.
According to its own description, Jiutian MSI is a service provider to government and business customers across China’s entire domestic microsatellite industrial chain (微小卫星全产业链). It has launched nine satellites to date, including leading the design, development, and in-orbit verification of a “private” (non-government) 100-kilogram satellite in 2018. Since 2019, Jiutian MSI has participated in New Type Infrastructure construction, specifically the National Satellite Internet Network (国家卫星互联网). In 2021, it became the first private (民营) satellite factory approved by the National Development and Reform Commission (who maintains the NTI register) after completing phase one construction and having begun comprehensive verification and testing of equipment for its production lines. When the factory begins production, it will be capable of manufacturing 100 satellites per year to respond to the satellite research and manufacturing requirements of state-owned and commercial customers for both the NTI Satellite Internet Network as well as other satellite internet industrial applications. Currently, Jiutian MSI has several commercial satellites under development and has initiated planning and design of a mass production line for satellite payloads.
The satellite internet research report (described at the beginning of this blog) was based on a questionnaire distributed to 100 potential satellite internet users (单位) in China, both government and business. Excerpts of the research report are widely available online, both through state-run media and through “private” business media. It is a lengthy study worth machine translating in its entirety if you have interest, but here are a few of the report’s main points that have been most often highlighted in PRC media:
China is building a satellite internet network to deal with space resource shortages and information security threats. Nearly 80% of the respondents to the report’s questionnaire believed that satellite internet has global significance for China’s national security and development strategies. “China must deal with the shortage of space resources and the information security threats brought by foreign low-orbit broadband satellite networks.”
China is still in a satellite internet developmental phase. China is now working to perfect its satellite internet network design and testing a satellite constellation system (星座系统). As China shapes its industrial supply chain (产业链) for satellite internet, communication and connection between supply and demand is crucial. This is the intent of the research report’s questionnaire.
The Russia-Ukraine war has increased the urgency of developing China’s satellite internet network. Xie Tao, chairman and founder of Jiutian MSI, believes that U.S. commercial satellite companies led by SpaceX provided Ukraine with a large number of ground terminal communication products and satellite services during the Russia-Ukraine war (俄乌战争). “This has given us a important insight: Accelerating the development of China’s satellite Internet network is urgent.”
China Must Build a Satellite Internet Network with Chinese Characteristics, Not Copy the U.S. Approach. According to Xie Tao, “China cannot copy the U.S. approach, but must build a satellite internet network with Chinese characteristics using the New Type National System (新型举国体制). According to the Party theoretical journal Seeking Truth, “New Type National System” refers to concentrating nationwide efforts and resources on key national undertakings. OK, I’m adding to Xie Tao’s bio: Tang dynasty buff & Party member.
Along with the focus on security, environmental/resource monitoring and disaster relief/emergency assistance will be the most important functions of the satellite internet network. The majority of enterprise “decisionmakers” believed that the most important future application of satellite internet would fall into the categories of environmental and resource monitoring, and disaster relief and emergency response. Apart from these broad categories, two other general categories also topped the list: satellite terminal equipment and satellite big data platforms.