Elon Musk is hoping that by next year, the SpaceX satellite internet service Starlink will be accessible to most of the world. The company has been moving fast to achieve this. Since the first launch in May of last year, it’s sent up 422 satellites across seven flights to low Earth orbit, making it the largest internet satellite constellation in the world.

But even though the goal is to reach people who might not otherwise have access to high-speed internet, Starlink might be locked out of the country with the largest internet population in the world. That’s because China also has one of the most tightly controlled internet environments in the world.

Experts seem to agree that China may remain more inaccessible to SpaceX than outer space. To officially launch a service in China, SpaceX would need permission from local authorities, which would also mean complying with censorship. But there’s technically another way of doing things too.

“I think the chances of Starlink getting market access in China would have to be very low, whether they have ISL or not,” said Blaine Curcio, founder of Orbital Gateway Consulting.

ISL, or intersatellite links, is one way Starlink could theoretically access users in China. It obviates the need for ground stations in certain areas by sending data between satellites. This also results in lower latency and higher speeds. But the Chinese government likely wouldn’t appreciate this.

“It would, I think, be rather problematic for the government as it would essentially be a foreign ISP accessing China from space…” Curcio said. “[It] would be mental but conceivable.”

On May 14, 2019, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket awaits the scheduled launch of 60 Starlink satellites from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. (Picture: AFP)

If Starlink wanted to officially offer service in China, though, what would that look like?

SpaceX would first need permission from China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), according to Lan Tianyi, founder of the Beijing-based space industry consultancy Ultimate Blue Nebula.

It’s not clear whether SpaceX has approached the MIIT. We reached out to SpaceX about the company’s plans for China, but we didn’t receive a response. But the company has received approval from similar authorities in other countries.

In the US, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved SpaceX to launch satellites and to deploy user terminals in its home country. And in February this year, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) gave an initial green light for SpaceX to offer Starlink internet in the country.

To catch up with the rapid development of satellite internet in the US, state-run and private companies in China have planned their own constellations. Last month, China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) added satellite internet to a list of “new infrastructures,” aiming to boost the industry with government support. The goal of these planned constellations is to deliver internet access to people living or working in areas landline networks can’t reach, such as remote rural areas, planes or ships in the middle of the ocean.

A render image of a satellite for Xingyun, a planned constellation consisting of 80 internet satellites. (Picture: China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation/WeChat)

Given China’s own satellite internet plans, it would be a complicated procedure for the MIIT to determine whether to allow SpaceX to run Starlink in China, Lan told us. A technical prerequisite is frequency coordination between Starlink’s satellites and China’s own communication satellite systems. The MIIT would be in charge figuring out whether the systems are compatible with each other.

“An imprecise analogy would be to say a third person is listening to our conversation, and if they can’t hear your voice once I start talking, then it means my voice interfered with the system. The interference would make it impossible for you two to communicate,” Lan explained. “That’s when two systems are not compatible.”

If the systems are found to be compatible, then getting a permit to operate in China would still require SpaceX to guarantee that Starlink would comply with all of China’s telecommunications regulations, Lan said. That would put the data going into China within the country’s Great Firewall censorship apparatus.

If SpaceX fulfilled these conditions and got access to China, then it would still have to build gateways in the country. That’s because the Starlink satellites that have already been launched don’t have ISL. Each one currently needs to communicate with a ground station.

SpaceX has plans for Starlink to use ISL eventually, but that also makes it more difficult for countries to monitor and regulate internet traffic. OneWeb, which once planned a service to compete with Starlink before going bankrupt, purposely didn’t use ISL in its system architecture because it would make it harder to get access to tough markets like China.

Gateways, on the other hand, are controlled by the countries where they’re located, something China might be more amenable to.

Satellites that will form part of SpaceX’s Starlink constellation await release into orbit from a Falcon 9 rocket in May, 2019. (Picture: SpaceX)

Curcio said that even if Starlink doesn’t put ISL on future satellites, accessing China’s market might require giving up some of its technology in return. It’s hard to imagine that SpaceX would agree to that, according to Curcio, since it looks like the US government could be a major Starlink customer.

If Starlink adds ISL as originally planned, it’s not impossible for SpaceX to flout China’s regulations, Curcio said. Other foreign companies have done it before. In 2015, Uber reportedly provided service in Guangzhou without proper authorization before its local office was eventually raided by the city’s police.

“It is not inconceivable that Musk would do the same thing,” Curcio said.

One possible scenario would be for Starlink user terminals to be smuggled into China. It would then be technically possible for people with the terminals and an active account to use the service within the country.

But if Musk’s own words are any indication, he doesn’t seem too keen on this approach. In a speech in 2015, when Starlink debuted at a SpaceX factory in Seattle, Musk said China has the “choice to shoot our satellites down” if Starlink broadcasts in the country.

“China can do that,” Musk said, prompting laughs from the audience. “So probably we shouldn’t broadcast there.”

Musk then added, “I’m hopeful that we can structure agreements with various countries to allow communication with their citizens, but it is a country-by-country basis.”

So if Starlink ever does figure out a way to officially provide service in China, it probably won’t make a difference to Chinese users, according to Lan. It would likely offer a similar user experience to landline internet, and it wouldn’t change the reality of internet censorship in the country.

“If you want to provide service in China, you have to comply with all of China’s requirements in terms of communications regulation, otherwise you won’t even get permission,” Lan said. “And if you satisfy regulators’ demands, then for users, it’s the same.”