News Feature | November 8, 2016

China Unveils First Satellite Smartphone For "Space-Based Silk Road"

By Jof Enriquez,
Follow me on Twitter @jofenriq

china satellite phone
Image courtesy of South China Morning Post.

China has unveiled the first satellite smartphone that works with the country's pioneering satellite for mobile communications, Tiantong-1 (TT-1).

The Tiantong-1 satellite – launched on Aug. 6 from southwestern China's Xichang Satellite Launch Center – is the first satellite of China's home-made satellite mobile telecoms system, and a key part of the country's space information infrastructure, according to Xinhua News Agency.

The network's first satellite-compatible smartphone, which was developed by state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), was unveiled recently at the Airshow China in Zhuhai, Guangdong province.

The smartphone reportedly was specially designed to be used by workers in remote areas or during emergency response, when ground-based communications services get disrupted.

“The TT-1 smartphone is so far capable of covering the territory of China and the whole South China Sea,” an engineer from CASC’s Fifth Academy told the South China Morning Post. “We are going to expand our coverage to the whole world by launching a network TT satellites in the next five years, because our ultimate goal is to replace Inmarsat, or even surpass it.”

Inmarsat is a British satellite telecommunications company and a market leader in mobile and broadband satellite services, supported by a fleet of 11 satellites and ground-based facilities.

When made available for sale in two to three months, the TT-1 smartphone will retail from around 10,000 yuan ($1,480), with communication fees starting from around 1 yuan a minute, a tenth of the price charged by Inmarsat, according to SCMP.

“Our product also supports the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS) and our home-developed Beidou navigation system,” the engineer reportedly added.

Besides satellite coverage, the smartphone is compatible with multiple ground-based cellular networks, including 4G LTE and 3G, supports SMS, WeChat, video and data transmission, and allows free switching between satellite and ground communication, according to The Indian Express.

Xinhua reports the Tiantong system already provides services for users in China, the Middle East, Africa and other areas, in conjunction with the network's ground service operated by China Telecom.

The launch of Tiantong and development of the TT-1 satellite smartphone is consistent with China's strategy to build a "space-based Silk Road" under an overarching "One Belt, One Road" geopolitical, economic, military, and technological strategy by the Chinese government.

In the CDA Institute blog, Malcolm Davis writes, "China looks set to promote access to its satellite capabilities such as the Beidou navigation satellites, Tianlian communications, and Gaofen and Haiyang imaging satellites to promote cooperative regional development. In the same way that the ‘one belt and one road’ promotes regional integration with China and reduces U.S. influence, a ‘Space Silk Road’ would achieve the same result in the space domain."