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

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.

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