New Space and Tech

Like a G60 — What’s China Planning with its Other NGSO?

By Blaine Curcio
July 27, 2023
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Like a G60 — What’s China Planning with its Other NGSO?
Rendering of “G60 Starlink” Industrial Base.
Image credit: / Yangtse.

For some time, we have been hearing public statements from Chinese decision-makers regarding the country’s LEO broadband constellation plans. While these statements have always been a little bit murky, there have been a few consistent threads for at least two years. First, the main broadband constellation project being developed by China’s state-owned apparatus is being led by China Satellite Network Limited (China SatNet) established in April 2021 for the specific purpose of operating China’s answer to Starlink. Second, the constellation name we have been hearing for some time is Guowang (short for Guojia Wangluo, or “National Network”), which seemed to be backed up by multiple ITU filings for constellations using the prefix GW (Guowang).

In recent days and months, however, we have been hearing more about a seemingly different constellation project, the G60. This isn’t necessarily so unusual: there have been several other LEO broadband constellations discussed by Chinese actors. But those have, for the most part, been discussed by commercial companies who themselves have limited credibility in the complicated world of “becoming a Chinese internet service provider from space,” given that internet service providers (ISPs) — and the internet more generally — in China are almost always under control of the state. But in the case of G60, we are hearing rumblings from some significant entities, namely the Shanghai Municipal Government and state-owned enterprises. This is odd, because based on Chinese-language sources, the constellation is planning to use ITU filings that China no longer owns. All this is to beg the question: What is China planning with its other NGSO broadband constellation?

A background on G60

The G60 project was first announced a few years ago, with the name referring to a highway that goes from Shanghai in the east to Kunming in the west. The project called for the development of a satellite internet industrial base in areas along the G60, particularly in the highly-developed eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang and the provincial-level city of Shanghai. Secondarily, the project referred to a broadband satellite constellation, called the G60 Constellation, among other names. Over these past few years, we have heard limited updates about G60, until late last year and early 2023, when updates started to trickle out that made some interesting, and at times puzzling connections.

Chiefly, an article from February of this year describing the G60 constellation noted that, as of the end of 2022, there had been five G60 test satellites sent into orbit. Apparently, four of these satellites were two KLEO Connect pairs launched in 2019 and 2021. As a refresher, KLEO Connect was a satellite constellation project being developed jointly by Chinese and European stakeholders. For those who do not recall, the KLEO Connect project crashed and burned because of, among other issues, major disagreements between the Chinese and European shareholders, culminating in headline news across mainstream financial media, and lawsuits that are still going on today. Soon after the project’s dissolution, the spectrum filings that had been allocated to KLEO Connect were purchased by Rivada, which plans to deploy the Rivada Space Networks constellation, legal battles notwithstanding. Rivada’s constellation plans are still in early stages, but one thing is clear: They will not be involving Chinese stakeholders. The satellites are set to be built by Terran Orbital, and there seems to be a significant US/Western European angle to the whole business plan.

All this is to say, if we assume that G60 is a continuation of KLEO Connect as we heard earlier this year, and if Rivada Space Networks now owns the spectrum previously assigned to KLEO Connect, and if the Chinese shareholders will have nothing to do with Rivada Space Networks, then it begs the question: is the Chinese concept of G60 dead in the water? Based on very recent news updates, the answer is a definitive yet puzzling “No.”

Recent rumblings

Recent weeks have seen some major announcements surrounding G60, an indication that it is decidedly not dead. First, on July 21, an article published in Chinese media highlighted the industrial development taking place in the Songjiang New Town of Shanghai. According to the article, the industrial park includes a factory with a total investment of ¥670 million ($93.7 million), which will be completed in 2023 and have a manufacturing capacity of 300 satellites per year, while also bringing down the cost of satellites by 35 percent.

Don’t mind the cartoonish font, this is the G60 Satellite Internet Industrial Base. Image credit: Sohu.

On the downstream side, the industrial base in Songjiang is home to several satcom application companies including Yuanxin Satellite (垣信卫星), and the industrial base appears to have significant support and incentives for companies developing things like satellite IoT applications, satellite precision navigation applications, and generally any other practical uses for China’s large and expanding space infrastructure.

And so, it seems there’s something big brewing in the Songjiang District of Shanghai. This was made even more apparent — and if anything, more intriguing — by an announcement from the Shanghai Municipal Government on Tuesday (July 25). During an official press conference on the topic of the “High-Quality Development in Songjiang District,” Cheng Xiangmin, Secretary of the Songjiang District Party Committee, noted that Songjiang has “accelerated the development of new fields and new ways of building a low-earth orbit broadband multimedia satellite constellation, the “G60 Starlink” (Bizarrely, the translation is literally “G60 Starlink;” the project has apparently taken the Chinese name that is universally ascribed to SpaceX’s Starlink, 星链).

The press conference briefing once again emphasized the industrial base component of the project, but in no uncertain terms mentioned that the “G60 Starlink” Industrial Project aims to build the world’s leading commercial satellite operation service platform, with the construction and operation of a global low-earth orbit satellite communication network as the starting point”. Finally, the briefing noted that the project will be completed in three phases, with the first being to build a digital satellite manufacturing plant, satellite on-orbit measurement and operation center, and satellite internet operation center.

So now what?

To summarize: a Chinese LEO broadband and industrial base development project known as G60 was announced a few years ago. It seems to be intricately connected to the former KLEO Connect project, which is now in the hands of nonChinese stakeholders, and yet official Chinese sources have become increasingly vocal about their plans for this constellation. What the heck gives? If we put on our critical thinking hat, we could speculate a few different possibilities:

  1. The Chinese side has some different spectrum filing that they plan to use for the revived G60 project.
  2. The Chinese side believes that there is a nonzero chance of victory in European courts against Rivada Space Networks in the fight over the existing/former KLEO spectrum.
  3. The Chinese side does not care about the transfer of ownership of the spectrum rights, and ITU be damned, they’re just going to deploy the constellation anyway. This is pretty unlikely, but the KLEO Connect battle has been nothing if not down and dirty, so we give it a small chance.
  4. The Chinese leadership (i.e. Shanghai Government officials) know nothing about the spectrum issue, and are making proclamations on bad and outdated information. This seems by far the least likely of the four, but given the niche nature of space and the minutia involved in the case, it’s perhaps a nonzero chance.

Of the above, the most likely is probably point 1. Even if that were to be the case, however, there are still several unanswered questions about this G60 project. How does it relate to China’s bigger, more National Government-supported constellation project, Guowang? How would China plan to commercialize this satellite broadband capacity? What kind of spectrum should we expect them to use?

Ultimately, the answer to all of the above is still “we don’t know.” But given the rapidity with which G60 has seemingly re-entered the scene, and given the level of support it enjoys from the Shanghai Government, among others, it seems likely that we will eventually find out.

Blaine Curcio

Blaine Curcio is the leading Chinese space industry analyst, having been based in Greater China since 2011, and having been working in the space and satcom sector since 2010. He is founder of Hong Kong-based Orbital Gateway Consulting, a research and consulting firm focused on the Chinese space sector, and is Affiliate Senior Consultant at Euroconsult, a leading space industry consulting firm.