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Taiwan plans for Ukraine-style back-up satellite Internet network amid risk of war

Taiwan is set to trial a NT$550 million (S$24.67 million) satellite programme.

When Russian forces knocked the Ukrainian city of Irpin offline in March, Tesla chief Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite Internet service came to the rescue.

In just two days, the city – whose power lines and cellular and Internet networks were damaged or destroyed – was back online, and residents could immediately get in touch with loved ones, according to reports.

Now, Taiwan – ever contending with the possibility of a Chinese invasion – is taking a leaf out of that handbook by setting up a similar back-up satellite Internet network.

“The experience of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine… showed that the whole world can know what is happening there in real time,” said Taiwan’s Digital Minister Audrey Tang in recent media interviews, conveying plans to build “digital resilience for all” in Taiwan.

Over the next two years, the island is set to trial a NT$550 million (S$24.67 million) satellite programme that aims to keep Taiwan’s command systems running if conventional connections get cut, Ms Tang said.

Several Taiwan companies are now in discussions with international satellite service providers, she added, without providing details.

New satellite Internet services such as those offered by Starlink rely on a constellation of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites orbiting at an altitude of 550km that can beam the Internet into even the most remote locations from space.

Currently, international Internet traffic is mostly carried through fibre-optic cables lining the ocean floor.

Taiwan is connected to the world via 15 submarine data cables.

“The Internet used in Taiwan relies heavily on undersea cables, so if (attackers) cut off all the cables, they would cut off all of the Internet there,” Dr Lennon Chang, a cyber-security researcher at Monash University, told The Straits Times.

“It makes sense for the government to have alternative forms of communication ready for emergency situations,” he added.

Taiwan’s satellite trial programme comes amid soaring cross-strait tensions, which reached new heights in recent weeks in the wake of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island in August. China, which views self-governing Taiwan as its own territory, deemed her trip an infringement of its own sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Beijing has never renounced the use of force to bring Taiwan under its control, and responded to the visit by launching a series of unprecedented military exercises, including the firing of ballistic missiles over the island.

Already, some analysts say that concerns over Taiwan’s network vulnerabilities are very real.

A report by researchers at George Mason University’s Mercatus Centre in the US, who analysed open-source data, noted that key digital infrastructure such as submarine cable landing stations are among China’s “strategic points of interests”.

Submarine cable landing stations are buildings where the cables come to shore and connect to a local network.

Satellites are a lot more challenging to knock out, requiring missiles, lasers or microwave technology to jam communications. And it is also harder to avoid collateral damage.

Dr Larry Press, professor of information systems at California State University, Dominguez Hills, noted how destroying even a small fraction of these satellites would cause space debris to hit other satellites in orbit.

“Even jamming and rendering them uncontrollable or unpredictable would cause a threat to all LEO satellites, including those of the Chinese. Attacking Starlink would be irrational,” he told ST.

In Ukraine, most of the Starlink dishes being used are only 58cm wide and, unlike mobile phone transmission towers, are readily movable to avoid detection.

In any case, it is crucial that communities are able to stay digitally connected during wartime – and not just for the obvious reason of staying in touch with loved ones.

“People could be faced with a lot of disinformation if they couldn’t verify things on the Internet,” Dr Chang said.

“Imagine if you did not have the Internet for just 30 minutes, and someone starts spreading word that Taiwan has fallen to China – it would cause widespread fear and panic,” he said.

In Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky has credited Starlink with helping his country overcome Russian propaganda.

“It helped us a lot, in many moments related to the blockade of our cities, towns, and related to the occupied territories,” he told Wired magazine.

“To lose contact with those people is to lose control completely, to lose reality,” he said, highlighting how some people living in offline areas had believed Russian troops when told that Ukraine no longer existed.

At the same time, the Internet has played a crucial role in Mr Zelensky’s efforts to drum up international support for Ukraine.

Dr Press, noting the leader’s regular virtual meetings with world leaders and updates via his Telegram channel, said: “President Zelensky uses social media and teleconferencing in his roles as a national leader and global diplomat.”

This is a strategy which has not gone unnoticed by Taiwan’s Digital Minister, who noted the importance of always maintaining high-quality communication in real time.

“It’s not only for our own people, but also for the people who care about us all over the world, so that we can enlist the assistance of international friends,” Ms Tang said.

Source: The Strait Times