At the inaugural Belt and Road Forum in 2017, the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) leader, Xi Jinping, made a pitch to the global south: the PRC could help develop partnering countries by building “big data, cloud computing, and smart cities” infrastructure, and in doing so, “connect them into the Digital Silk Road (DSR) of the 21st century.”

The DSR has two functions. First, as Chinese technology companies face a saturated domestic market, and greater scrutiny in advanced democracies, they hope the Global South’s economies can be cultivated into alternative markets. Second, PRC-built digital infrastructure would firmly embed authoritarian principles within the very fabric of the internet‘s infrastructure.

If the DSR prevails, the PRC could use its dominance over digital infrastructure in the Global South in a variety of ways. It could lock in commercial advantages for its businesses overseas. It could enable incumbent and would-be authoritarians to monitor, censor, and shut off the internet as it suits them. Its companies and intelligence services could access sensitive, classified data using backdoors in routers and switches, and use it to sway markets and elections. Well-placed equipment could even be used for military purposes.

While democracies currently maintain a lead in terrestrial and subsea internet cables—the backbones of the internet—the PRC is doggedly building its own parallel networks along the DSR, especially in places where profit-seeking Western companies will not go. Instead of pursuing costly projects underground or underwater, some have suggested that democracies could look to the skies and use satellite broadband to counter the DSR.

The Cyberspace Race

The foundational layer of this competition lies in the submarine and terrestrial internet cables that carry the vast majority of internet traffic. Democracies—namely France, the United States, and Japan—dominate the supply and installation of submarine cables, but the PRC has made a concerted effort to catch up through the DSR. In the short term, the United States and its partners have successfully outbid and blocked PRC involvement in subsea cable projects. However, the PRC is building a parallel network of cables in the developing world through the DSR, both under the sea and over land.

Despite the lead in global networks, efforts to match the DSR at this layer through the G7’s Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII) and Europe’s Global Gateway do have their challenges. They can cost tens to hundreds of millions of dollars, and can be logistically difficult to build and maintain. These initiatives have faced political and bureaucratic hurdles, and the business risks inherent in these projects make mobilizing private investment difficult. Meanwhile, PRC-based telecommunications firms can build cables cheaply at strategic locations and operate them at a loss because of generous state subsidies. Without a strategic mobilization to provide competitive connectivity options, democracies risk ceding the emerging digital economies of tomorrow to PRC domination.

High Hopes, Hard Limits: The Reality of Satellite Broadband

Satellite broadband has often been floated as an alternative tool in the competition over digital infrastructure because it can provide access to places where cables are prohibitively challenging to build. The appeal is obvious for many countries. Chinese ships have damaged Taiwan’s subsea cables. Famously, Ukraine turned to Starlink, Elon Musk’s satellite internet service, when Russia targeted its network infrastructure. The five Central Asian republics, which are overwhelmingly reliant on terrestrial cables running through Russia, are also in talks to diversify their connections through Starlink and OneWeb.

Unfortunately, satellite broadband has two major flaws.

First, and most important, is bandwidth. Satellite broadband technology, though rapidly advancing, currently cannot match the sheer capacity and lower latency of subsea and terrestrial cables. In 2022, Starlink said that the total network capacity was two hundred gigabits per second, and it aimed to expand to ten terabits. Subsea cables can transmit data a hundred times faster, twenty terabits per second, and in some cases up to half a petabit per second or more.

The second problem is cost. While the launch of satellites has become more cost-effective over time, the upfront investment required to create entire constellations and keep them running is substantial. For example, in 2018, SpaceX estimated that its planned Starlink constellation would cost $10 billion to deploy, and the company operated at a loss until very recently. Even maintaining one satellite can be a challenge.  Both Laos and Nigeria obtained their own satellites from the PRC, but the additional costs of operating them have been so expensive that the PRC has taken substantial, even controlling, equity in them. From an individual consumer perspective in the Global South, a Starlink terminal costs hundreds of dollars upfront, plus a monthly fee of $120/month, but the communities in developing economies may only be willing and able to pay a small fraction of those amounts.

No Getting Around the Basics

While satellite broadband represents a significant leap forward in connecting the unconnected, it is not a silver bullet for addressing the DSR. Satellite broadband systems cannot support the sheer volume of data needed to support national-level systems, nor are they a viable development option for much of the Global South on their own, though they can be an important supplement. To effectively counter the DSR, democracies cannot skip the basics. They must invest in connecting the Global South to the democratic world’s networks through a broad and diverse array of submarine and terrestrial cables.

The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.