China Telecom kicks off international expansion of direct-to-phone satellite service

Hong Kong residents can now avail themselves of China Telecom's satellite direct-to-phone service, a launch that marks a new phase in the operator's rollout plan.

Nick Wood

May 10, 2024

2 Min Read

China Telecom has been offering a satellite option for mobile customers for years, via a portfolio of dongles, dedicated satphones, plus a growing number of cellular smartphones – developed by the likes of Huawei, among others – that feature built-in satellite antennas.

These devices connect to China's homegrown Tiantong-1 geostationary Earth orbit (GEO) satellite constellation. Consisting of three satellites – with another one due to launch this year – they provide coverage of mainland China, as well as neighbouring countries in Asia, Asia-Pacific and surrounding seas, and even the east coast of Africa.

When it comes to satellite direct-to-device (D2D) connectivity, typically we think of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites – like Starlink – that sacrifice coverage in order to support lower latency and higher speeds, so it's quite an achievement for China Telecom to enable D2D services with GEO satellites.

According to information gleaned from China Telecom's Website, throughput from a Tiantong-1 satellite maxes out at a modest 384 Kbps, so the service isn't exactly a substitute for fixed or wireless broadband. Nonetheless, according to Space China, the service recorded 400,000 calls per month in 2021, with a call success rate in excess of 96%. It expects the number of D2D users in China to reach 3 million by 2025.

Until now, service availability has been limited to the mainland, but this week's launch in Hong Kong marks the start of its expansion further afield.

Speaking at a launch event this week, Yin Jin, CEO of China Telecom Global, said the service will suit users commuting between Hong Kong, and places like Shenzhen, Macao and neighbouring Zhuhai. It will also support maritime and emergency comms services.

Yang Lingcai, president of China Telecom's SatCom unit, declared the launch "a new starting point to promote Tiantong's overseas operation in Hong Kong and Macao, as well as Southeast Asia, South Asia and other 'Belt and Road' countries."

Indeed, ahead of its Hong Kong debut, China Telecom promoted its satellite D2D capabilities to an international audience for the first time at this year's Mobile World Congress.

In addition to extending GEO services into new territories, this week also saw the successful launch of China's first medium Earth orbit (MEO) satellites. Called Smart Skynet, they will be used to test space-based network routing and switching, flexible capacity-on-demand, and space-based laser comms.

Space China eventually plans to launch eight commercial MEO satellites to form a global constellation orbiting at an altitude of 20,000 kilometres. Depending on how smoothly it all goes, it may eventually increase that number to 16 or even 32 satellites.

Then of course there is China's ongoing plan to deploy 13,000 LEO satellites under Project Guo Wang (national network) – with the first 1,300 of these slated for launch this year. With all this activity, 2024 is shaping up to be a busy year for China's satellite comms sector.

About the Author(s)

Nick Wood

Nick is a freelancer who has covered the global telecoms industry for more than 15 years. Areas of expertise include operator strategies; M&As; and emerging technologies, among others. As a freelancer, Nick has contributed news and features for many well-known industry publications. Before that, he wrote daily news and regular features as deputy editor of Total Telecom. He has a first-class honours degree in journalism from the University of Westminster.

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