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TOKYO — KDDI, Japan’s second-largest mobile provider, has emerged as one of SpaceX’s partners in rolling out high-speed wireless coverage via satellites, Nikkei has learned, part of SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s goal of connecting the entire world to the internet.
SpaceX has launched hundreds of Starlink telecommunications satellites with the goal of fully starting services in Japan by the end of the year. KDDI and SpaceX will begin a network proving test in Japan this month, and coverage is expected to be commercially available next year.
The pair will start by offering internet service to customers living in mountainous regions and islands for no additional charge. The satellite network will also serve as backup in case terrestrial telecom lines are disrupted during natural disasters or blackouts.
Once Internet of Technology takes off, Starlink could field a network for smart devices, which would be used for data collection in sparsely populated places or for drone operation in otherwise hard-to-access areas.
The transmission of visuals and other large pieces of data will allow officials to remotely monitor volcanic eruptions or floods or inspect bridges and electrical towers.
For farmers, Starlink will allow them to monitor weather and crop conditions so they are better informed of when to fertilize or harvest.
Terrestrial telecom infrastructure involves a web of base stations, switching stations, fiber optic cables and backbone networks. Starlink will connect data transmissions between phones and base stations to backbone networks via satellites.
The new service is expected to provide a low-cost communications infrastructure for low-population areas because it renders fiber optic cables unnecessary. KDDI will add satellite communication antennas to base stations and install a new SpaceX transmission station at the Yamaguchi Satellite Communication Center.
Japan still has a few areas with incomplete telecom networks. At the end of March, about 9,900 people lived in locations with no mobile coverage. Even in areas with wireless coverage, it is often hard to connect with devices on islands.
KDDI covers over 90% of the population with 4G communication, but so-called platinum frequency band only extends over 60% of the land area.
A Starlink satellite can exchange signals across more than 1,000 km with little latency. The satellites orbit at lower altitudes than conventional communication satellites, which hover about 36,000 km above ground. The lower altitudes are said to enable faster communication compared to normal satellite services.
Such satellite networks services need approval from Japan’s communications ministry before operations can begin. The ministry amended rules in August that opened the doors to SpaceX launching internet services in Japan. Both SpaceX and KDDI plan to obtain licenses by the end of the year.
Back when KDDI has been strong in satellite control signals ever since the company was known as Kokusai Denshin Denwa. The carrier has collaborated with SpaceX on the technological front since last year.
This current partnership entails SpaceX providing the satellites while KDDI takes care of terrestrial telecom connections.
Musk mentioned “two quite significant partnerships with major country telcos” in June during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Although Musk did not disclose the companies’ names, it turns out that KDDI is one of them.
SpaceX will use the service rollout in Japan, where customers expect high-quality connections, as the model for a global network.
SpaceX has been launching Starlink satellites at a rapid pace. About 400 units alone were sent into space in 12-month period starting May 2019, according to NASA. More than 1,500 of the satellites are believed to be currently in orbit.
Musk’s company will continue launching satellites until it forms a constellation of over 10,000 units. There are over 3 billion people worldwide without internet access. The expansion of services would enable the global spread of digitalization.
A satellite network will be essential for making sixth generation communication a feasible reality. Driverless vehicles and similar applications will use 6G. To prevent latencies and disruptions in service, terrestrial base stations will need to work together with satellites and aerial communication drones.
Other players are jumping into the satellite telecom business. Amazon.com is spending $10 billion to create a network of over 3,000 satellites. Japanese counterpart Rakuten Group has partnered with a U.S. startup with the goal of launching satellite-powered mobile services in the next fiscal year.
NTT, Japan’s leading telecom group, has teamed with Sky Perfect JSAT Holdings on developing what are essentially data processing centers in space. Those services are expected to go live in 2026.