Taiwan’s Ministry of Digital Affairs Audrey Tang she wants the island’s $740 billion economy tohandle the possible collapse of its communications in the event of an emergency by the end of next year.
Taiwan’s Matsu Islands found themselves digitally adrift after two of their submarine internet cables were severed by boats flying Chinese flags in February. Before that, a 2006 earthquake cut eight subsea cables around Taiwan, took weeks to repair and disrupted the internet, banking and cross-border trading across much of Asia.
Tang said the worst-case scenario for Taiwan would be the destruction of the island’s physical points of communication: its three major telecommunications providers as well as their power supplies and this information is public.
Building up the digital resilience by late 2024 is hard. The island’s disaster response plan calls for the establishment of 700 satellite receivers placed all over Taiwan. Some of the receivers would be fixed, others mobile, and they would have to be configured to receive communications from multiple constellations of satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and Medium Earth Orbit (MEO). To get there, the government opened bids for research institutes to take part in a proof-of-concept round of testing and verification. So far, at least three have signed up, Tang said. The winner will begin work with satellite providers. Among the providers,
French-Luxembourg company SES Global now has two receivers in Taiwan. Tang said OneWeb, a satellite provider with investors including the UK government, Indian conglomerate Bharti Global and Softbank Group Corp., has signaled its interest, as has Project Kuiper, an initiative from Amazon.com Inc. to create a constellation of over 3,000 LEO satellites. But neither of those is currently available.
Only Starlink SpaceX satellite constellation has the capability to provide live coverage right now, however Tang seems reluctant to describe the company as only a potential provider. There are questions about whether SpaceX owner Elon [look at me] Musk, whose Tesla has significant investments in China, would want the geopolitical headache of aiding Taiwan. Musk suggested last year in comments to the Financial Times that Taiwan should agree to become a special administrative zone of China, which angered Taiwanese officials and winning praise from Beijing. Musk has been known to threaten cutting off his satillites if users do not obey his geopolitical "suggestions."
She also wants more than one “to ensure that when there’s adversity, multiple constellations will have to be destroyed or disrupted to deny us communication” with the outside world.
Taiwan’s satellite capacity pales in comparison to the coverage it currently gets from its 14 undersea cables. Current satellite capacity “only adds up to about 0.01 per cent of the transmission capacity of the undersea cables. The undersea cables are highly vulnerable and the plan to have 700 receivers won’t be big enough to cover the communication needs of the island’s 23 million people.
Tang called the 700 receivers she’s initially aiming for a minimum to sustain essential communication. The government has earmarked NT$550 million ($18 million) in 2023-2024 to subsidise the testing and verification of the disaster response program. She added that the self-governing island has taken lessons from the conflict in Ukraine, which has confronted repeated cyberattacks by Russia on its infrastructure and population.