DFH Episode 4 – Discussing Chinese Satcom Constellations with Lan Tianyi

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Welcome to Episode 4 of the Dongfang Hour. This week, we invite our very first guest to the podcast to discuss satellite constellations, and what a guest! 

LAN Tianyi is the CEO of Ultimate Blue Nebula and SpaceKey, two Beijing-based firms focusing on satellite/space industry consulting and research. Having spent several years working inside China’s state-owned space apparatus (largely at CAST and its subsidiaries), Tianyi branched off on his own in 2014, and has since been consulting with many of China’s most successful and dynamic commercial space companies. Today, in addition to his two companies, Tianyi is actively involved in the China Satellite Conference, an annual event in Beijing, as well as Satellite World, a Chinese satellite news publication. 

On today’s episode, we speak with Tianyi about communications constellations. This year has seen a significant acceleration in the rollout of western low earth orbit (LEO) communications constellations, with the most obvious example being Starlink. Less publicly, Chinese constellation projects have been making steady progress throughout the year, and while we are unlikely to see any Chinese constellation with hundreds of satellites in orbit by year-end, there is much to discuss about these projects. Topics of today’s episode include:

  • What are some of the major Chinese constellation projects, and what distinguishes them from one another?
  • What are the similarities and differences between the broader constellation ecosystem in China compared to the US?
  • Given China’s strong terrestrial telecoms network, what type of demand will these constellations be serving?
  •  Will these constellations be limited to China, or should we expect global presence?

Some key takeaways

The biggest constellation projects in China are Hongyan, Xingyun, and Hongyun, all of which are being developed by state-owned enterprises. Given the business model of broadband constellations (ISP from space), and given the degree of control that the Chinese government exercises over the internet, it is seen as highly likely that the country’s first broadband constellation will be managed by SOEs. 

That being said, a number of private companies have entered the fray, with oftentimes rapidly evolving business models. This includes Commsat, Galaxy Space, MinoSpace, and others. These private companies have different focuses, but most aim to address a piece of the constellation puzzle. Commsat wants to mass-manufacture smallsats for large constellations, MinoSpace has a similar plan, with both companies having much “space” in their DNA. Galaxy Space, on the other hand, has a leadership team that comes from a more general tech/telecommunications background, and as such, is working on developing applications related to 5G and IoT. 

The private companies and SOEs have found a common ally in their buildout of constellation businesses, namely local and provincial governments in China. Following the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC)’s announcement supporting satellite broadband as a “new infrastructure” in China, several provincial and city governments doubled down on their efforts to bring satellite broadband companies to their jurisdiction. This included Galaxy Space announcing a “superfactory” in Nantong and Commsat announcing factories in Yibin (Sichuan) and Tangshan (Hebei).

China’s constellations are closely linked with other initiatives, such as the Belt and Road Spatial Information Corridor, the “New Infrastructure” projects, etc.  

Finally, we also expect constellation projects with highly specific target markets to be more open to private companies—for example, Geely’s plan for a constellation to provide enhanced navigation, implicitly to Geely cars, is seen as less controversial than plans to become an “ISP from space”. 

Sources of interest

[1] Galaxy Space’s Nantong Superfactory (in Chinese), 澎湃新闻, July 2020
[2] Commsat’s Tangshan factory, ECNS News, September 2020
[3] Belt and Road Spatial Information Corridor, UNOOSA, April 2019
[4] Information on CASIC’s Wuhan Aerospace Industrial Base, which includes a satellite manufacturing facility, Global Times, September 2020
[5] Information on Geely’s satellite ambitions, Nikkei, April 2020[6] General article on China’s LEO ambitions compared to the west, written by Blaine, TalkSatellite
[6] More recent general article on China’s LEO ambitions, also written by Blaine, WestEastSpace.com, May 2020

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