Hot on Mars, but short everywhere else

M Matheswaran | Updated on March 12, 2018 Published on May 19, 2015

Same old, same old Continuing to rely on PSLVs. V Ganesan

ISRO’s steadily killing India’s digital dreams with its inability to provide satellite support, even for television

While ISRO’s recent Mars mission was a superb success, the latest CAG report (2014) tells a different tale — about the organisation’s poor planning and shoddy execution. Is that the reason why 75 per cent of Indian television’s transponder requirements are hired from foreign satellites? Where does that leave the dream of Digital India?

Today, space services have become indispensable facets of everyday life. For example, television is critically dependent on satellite-based transponders. India should have had a majority of its TV channels beamed through its own satellites, for which it should have created the requisite space capabilities. However, as the CAG report points out, India has failed to emerge as a player in the global satellite market.

Below expectations

From 300-odd channels in 2008, the Indian television industry more than doubled to 821 licensed channels in 2012. This is expected to grow to 1600 channels by 2017, of which 1300 are expected to be operational. The channels operate on C band, extended-C and Ku-bands. DTH services operate on Ku-band, a rapidly growing segment.

In order to enable this growth, the government had to scrap the “closed sky” policy that prevented the hiring of foreign transponders. Despite stiff opposition from the department of space, the government, recognising the mismatch between ISRO’s ability to provide transponder capacity and the industry’s requirement, declared an “open sky” in January 2000. The TV industry was allowed to hire foreign transponders with a caveat that all hiring be done for short periods through ISRO (Antrix). The objective was to shift to Indian satellites at the earliest — but this has not materialised. The CAG report has rightly blamed ISRO for poor planning and execution. It had planned for a target of 500 transponders on domestic satellites in the 11th Plan period (2007-12) and further increasing it to 800 transponders in the 12th Plan period (2012-17). In practice, it has been able to operationalise only 187 transponders during the 11th Plan period. In the fast growing and strategically important Ku-band segment, ISRO has been able to provide only 48 Ku-band transponders as against the target of 218 transponders, forcing DTH operators to shift to foreign satellites. All this has translated into higher costs as well as a huge revenue loss. In C-band, only 160 channels out of 660 operational channels are carried by transponders on Indian satellites, which is barely 25 per cent. Similarly, out of 76 Ku-band transmitters used by DTH (as of July 2013), only 19 (25 per cent) are on Indian satellites. This shortfall is largely due to ISRO launching only three satellites as against the planned target of nine satellites in the 11th Plan period.

In the early 1990s, India was seen as a strong contender to capture the growing satellite launch market by virtue of its low cost and better success rate. But this has failed to materialise so far. To this day India’s launch capability is limited to its workhorse PSLV, which can place only up to 1.5-tonne satellites in orbit. The major launch market relates to geostationary orbits, which will require ISRO to cross the 4-tonne payload barrier in its GSLV launch capability.

Limited launch capability

ISRO’s attempts to achieve this through cryogenic engine development, with Russian cooperation, in the early 1990s were scuttled by the Americans citing MTCR provisions to force Russian withdrawal, thus, putting India out of the global satellite launch market as a strategic player. The successful launch of GSLV in January this year is just a preliminary step to prove its cryogenic development. It will need few more developmental launches over two-three years, before it can establish its payload launch capability of at least three tonnes. There is also the problem of poor reliability and longevity of INSAT satellites, which further reduces Indian transponder availability.

Therefore ISRO’s failure to effectively strategise its transponder availability has hurt Indian strategic interests. Not only have foreign satellite operators garnered more business, they have also occupied five orbital slots in Indian skies; it will difficult to evict them later. That Antrix has negotiated these contracts for its revenue generation is no consolation. ISRO could have addressed this issue by launching more of its Geo satellites through the EU. It needs to concentrate its efforts to accelerate India’s GSLV capability and satellite reliability. Clearly, relying on foreign satellites is not only a commercial loss but a security risk to our space capabilities.

The writer, a retired air marshal, was deputy chief of Integrated Defence Staff, and a test pilot. He is an advisor to HAL and the aerospace taskforce of Ficci

Published on May 19, 2015
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