Gov’t on 3rd try for low-orbit satellite communication feasibility approval

2023.09.18 12:17:01 | 2023.09.18 14:24:08

SpaceX’s low-orbit satellite. [Courtesy of SpaceX]이미지 확대

SpaceX’s low-orbit satellite. [Courtesy of SpaceX]



The South Korean Ministry of Science and ICT is on its third attempt to develop low-orbit satellite communication networks to develop the satellite communication technologies that are needed, although not immediately, if Korea’s world-class ground communication networks are destroyed. All eyes are now on whether the government’s third try will be successful.

The Science Ministry’s Radio Policy Bureau unveiled a strategy to promote satellite communication on Monday and applied for a preliminary feasibility study, which determines the feasibility of a project worth more than 50 billion won ($37.67 million), for low-orbit satellite communication this month. The Science and Technology Innovation Division at the ministry will oversee the study.

The low-orbit satellite communication project failed to gain approval after its preliminary feasibility studies in 2021 and 2022 as the technology was not deemed as urgently needed for a country that is well equipped with ground communication networks. “Satellite communication has failed to qualify because it lacked grounds for relevance to global business,” a person familiar with the matter said.

The Radio Policy Bureau has refined the details of the application a bit further with this in mind.

The budget was initially set at 480 billion won for 2025 to 2030, which is 110 billion won less than the last application. “We aimed for four launches last time, but minimized the number to three low-orbit satellite launches this time to slim down the budget,” Choi Woo-hyuk, director general at the bureau, said. The ministry added that it will grow and boost the materials, parts, and equipment companies for satellite communication to hit exports worth $3 billion by 2030, or 10 times the project budget.

The satellite communications market is expected to grow to $216.2 billion by 2030, according to data from market research firms. Given that the overall telecommunications market is estimated to be worth $2.65 trillion in 2030, satellite communication is expected to account for 10 percent of the entire telecommunications market the same year sixth generation (6G) communication is commercialized. The Science Ministry’s export targets of $3 billion in total and $500 million annually on average account for a 0.2 percent share in the satellite communications market.

The government’s modest target is due to the perception that Korea cannot become a key player in the satellite communications sector.

U.S. company Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) has already launched 4,088 satellites using Starlink, a low-orbit satellite communication service, while British company OneApp, which is the second largest company in the market, has launched 634. The government’s plan to launch three low-orbit satellites with the 480 billion won budget does not mean a global business, which requires at least 200 low-orbit satellites, but means accumulating relevant technology and fostering materials, parts, and equipment companies. This explains the government’s realistic target of 0.2 percent in the satellite communications sector, which will be mainly dominated by the United States and the United Kingdom.

The industry predicts that the 6G era, which will be commercialized in 2030, will combine terrestrial and low-orbit satellite communication Accordingly, Korea must pass the test and accumulate low-orbit satellite communication technology as soon as possible although there is no immediate urgency. The technology is also important for security reasons and not only from an economic perspective.

In its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Russia thoroughly destroyed Ukraine‘s terrestrial communication network in the conflict’s early stages and Ukrainian forces faced initial challenges without communication. But Elon Musk’s SpaceX provided Starlink to the Ukrainian military, which facilitated communication during the war.

This is why some observers are calling for the development of low-orbit satellites centered on the military amid growing conflict between the United States and China as well as on the Taiwan Strait. For this reason, the Science Ministry announced the satellite communication strategy and said it will operate the “K-LEO Communication Alliance,” a pan-national public-private-military consultation body to examine the feasibility of independent low-orbit satellite communication network starting from 2024.

By Na Hyun-joon and Choi Jieun

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