Penang Takes its First Step into the Space Age
By Digital PenangJuly 2021 TECH WATCH
ON APRIL 20, a landmark signing took place between Angkasa-X, Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) and Digital Penang to position and develop Penang as a key player in the ASEAN Space Economy through a three-phase plan.
Fibre cables may be the main resource for high-speed internet being fought over today, but above us, a grab for Space has begun on the most optimum orbit around Earth to provide fast and reliable internet connection, even to the most remote parts of the world where set-up of a fibre cable network is either too costly or near impossible to do.
What to Know about LEO Satellites
The era of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites is dawning. Unlike the geosynchronous equatorial orbit (GEO) satellites used for weather forecasting, satellite radio and television, whose path is 35,000km above the Earth, LEO satellites place themselves at an altitude between 200 and 2,000km.
During the signing, Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow remarked, "Land grab, which was once so rampant in the history of mankind, has now interestingly become Space grab in this new frontier." This statement has never rung truer.
Earlier this year, Elon Musk pledged to have 42,000 LEO satellites launched through his company SpaceX's Starlink Constellation, while Jeff Bezos' Project Kuiper will also be staking its claim on the orbit soon. But these personalities aren't the only ones; more and more agencies in the private and public sectors globally have also thrown their hats into the ring.
At the moment, if from Penang, one wants to link to a server in the US, the request will have to be transmitted through a network of fibre cables that largely follows the coasts of continents and seabed – not exactly the shortest route. These cables must also go through numerous repeaters and routers, resulting in signal delay or latency.
Experiments conducted by the US Air Force Research Laboratory to determine the speed of a LEO satellite found that it measured close to 610 Mbps. Imagine being able to download a 50GB file in a record 11 minutes, six times the average speed of most internet providers available to the public!
These LEO satellites too could be the answer in hastening internet connectivity and more importantly, in bridging the digital divide, ensuring that all areas – urban, rural and remote – are equal in their access to the internet.
Closer to home, Penang is currently the only state to classify the internet as a utility; and as part of its Penang2030 vision, the state has mandated equal access to the internet for its population. "In addressing the digital divide, many countries are finding it a challenge to provide reliable access to rural and underserved areas. The cost of laying fibre-optic cables and even rolling out 5G is not commercially attractive over sparsely populated areas. The mission and vision of Angkasa-X fit into our strategic direction in many ways. Hence, this venture shows promise in doctoring the digital infrastructure issue," Chow explained further.
In cooperation with USM, Phase 1 will focus on the curation and creation of an Aerospace and Satellite-related engineering course, targeting students, professors and tech professionals in Asia in the hope of creating a future pool of talents in the field. The set-up of a R&D Lab at USM will follow in Phase 2; this will facilitate the transfer of technology from foreign partners in areas of design, development and delivery of the technical and technology know-how in preparation for the actual launch. Forming the core of Phase 3 is the development of an ecosystem through a SpaceTech Park involving key players in the supply chain.
This tripartite collaboration is set to be the state's first major launch into the Space Economy.