Because Taiwan is an island, its global internet access depends completely on undersea cables that can be cut by an invasion force.
The war in the Ukraine has shown Taiwan how important it is to be able to switch to a backup internet network if an invading army cuts the high-tech cables that connect your country to the global internet. Over the last few months, Ukrainian citizens have been able to access a backup satellite internet system which enabled them to share with the world shocking and informative videos, emails, texts and photos about the reality of what is happening in the warzone. The nation’s central command structure has also used this satellite internet system to communicate with its widely spread forces while transmitting its messaging to the world.
When Russian forces destroyed much of Ukraine’s internet infrastructure at the beginning of the invasion, the country reached out to Elon Musk, who reacted by allowing Ukraine to use — free of charge — SpaceX’s low-orbit Starlink satellites as an alternative gateway to the world’s internet. This move also necessitated the delivery to Ukraine of more than 10,000 small Starlink transceiver dishes, partly paid for by funding from the U.S. government. While large, stationary satellite dishes can easily be destroyed by Russian attack aircraft or artillery, it is much harder to find and destroy thousands of small and mobile transceiver dishes.
Taiwan is in many ways even more dependent on such a backup internet based on satellite access. Because it is surrounded by water, the country is physically much more isolated than Ukraine. If China invades, it is highly probable that all undersea cables that link the island to the world will be attacked. Ivan Kanapathy, who was director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia on the White House’s National Security Council staff from 2018 to 2021, told the Wall Street Journal: “Observing Ukraine’s highly effective use of media, Beijing likely judges that disconnecting Taiwan from the world would greatly improve China’s chances of success” if it invades.
A recently discovered Chinese online database shows that China has compiled a detailed list of Taiwan’s communication towers, plus all the places where undersea internet cables exit the ocean and connect to the country’s internet infrastructure.
The situation in Ukraine has shown that satellite internet services like Starlink can keep large parts of a country connected after all undersea cables are cut, if the country already has the transceiver dishes in position. Rose Croshier, a policy fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington recently told Wired: “In Ukraine you could see immediately that Starlink and other constellations mean you have the opportunity to have a resilient system protected from traditional ground attacks or control.”
Unlike Ukraine, Taiwan’s extreme geographic isolation means it would be almost impossible to receive satellite transceiver dishes once an invasion has started. For these reasons, Taiwan’s digital affairs ministry is looking at ways to pre-position the hardware required for connecting to satellite internet services before a theoretical conflict breaks out.
The head of this ministry, Audrey Tang, told Reuters that part of her ministry’s plan to create a backup internet is to launch a trial satellite-internet program worth 550 million NTD ($18 million) over the next two years. She said the goal is to keep the country’s command structure functioning by “instantly” switching to alternative connection systems, such as satellites in low-earth orbit. She added that keeping the internet going in a time of crisis would also help to maintain social stability in Taiwan.
Minister Tang told Reuters that a number of Taiwanese companies are negotiating with global satellite service providers to form partnerships after such services would be legalized in Taiwan, but she gave no details.
The minister earlier said in a radio interview on September 12 that the Taiwan government is currently formulating policies for adopting a backup satellite network similar to that used by Ukraine. She said the government will begin accepting commercial applications for such “non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) satellite systems” in November.
Minister Tang added that the ministry will start to install NGSO equipment at 700 locations in Taiwan and three locations outside Taiwan, in order to start testing the technology. She says the plan is to get the infrastructure in place, so that if a major disaster happens, Taiwan can immediately make a complete switch to the satellite service.
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