September 29, 2012, was a red letter day for the Indian Space Research Organisation. GSAT-10, India's heaviest communication satellite, was launched into space on board the Ariane-5 rocket from the European spaceport in French Guiana on that day. The satellite, which weighed 3,435kg, carried 30 transponders (12 Ku-band, 12 C-band and 6 extended C-band). It was expected to augment India's communication capabilities, especially in the direct to home (DTH) sector. Yet, nearly three years later, the Indian satellite communication space is in disarray and remains reliant on foreign satellites, despite launching two more satellites in the GSAT series.
The state-of-the-art GSAT-10, built and launched at an expense of Rs750 crore, was rendered useless of its original purpose of providing DTH services in the country. It has been put to non-DTH use because of serious flaws in the lease terms drawn up by ISRO. Two different reports by the Comptroller and Auditor General―report number 22 and 27 of 2014―have shown that the department of space (DoS) failed to meet its targets.
"Against a requirement of 228 Ku-band transponders, the DoS could have only 40, meeting only 10 per cent of the DTH needs of the country," said principal auditor Gurvin Sidhu. To tide over the shortfall, ISRO leased transponder space on foreign satellites and allowed foreign satellites to be launched in India’s orbital space. Foreign satellites are present in five orbital slots over India, providing DTH service. "Crowding of foreign satellites over India and the consequent increase in demand for the orbital slots not only affect the INSAT (Indian National Satellite) system, but also result in non-availability of strategically important slots for India," said another CAG official who worked on the audit.
The audit has found mismanagement and favouritism in ISRO. Sidhu said Doordarshan was hosted on a Chinese satellite for over seven months to give DTH operator Tata Sky more space on INSAT-4A, although it was fifth in the order of preference for allocation of satellite capacity. The INSAT Coordination Committee, which was set up by the DoS to direct the government on satellite programmes, was not convened for seven years. "It [the DoS] went ahead to set up DTH services without having established any policy for doing so. And this allowed it to grant a right of first refusal to Tata Sky for using Ku-band transponders in INSAT-4A," said a CAG official.
The DoS gave Tata Sky the right of first refusal on using Ku-band transponders at the 83 degrees east orbital slot. The coveted slot gave Tata Sky the capability to beam its signals across India. The CAG noted that such a right was not given to other operators, including the state-run Prasar Bharati.
When GSAT-10 was launched, the DoS offered Tata Sky the option to swap its transponders in INSAT-4A with the ones in the new satellite, as the older ones were functioning on reduced power. "Tata Sky declined the offer and shifted its services to foreign satellites. But the DoS did not allocate the capacity on GSAT-10 to any other service provider since Tata Sky was given the right of first refusal and it feared there could be litigation if it did so," said Sidhu.
Tata Sky was not the only firm to receive such treatment from the DoS. From 2008 to 2010, it allowed Sun DTH, owned by Union minister Dayanidhi Maran’s family, to use additional transponder capacity than what it would bill the company. When Prasar Bharati sought additional capacity in 2012, it was allotted an additional transponder without an agreement. As a result, the national broadcaster could not use the additional transponder, and the lease charge of 05.9 crore was left uncollected by the DoS.
While foreign satellite companies continued to hike their lease rates, ISRO reduced its charges. However, a majority of DoS clients, including Tata Sky, have migrated to foreign satellites as a permanent measure. "The DoS could not satisfactorily fulfil the competing needs of critical, strategic and commercial sectors, which led to the forced migration of commercial DTH users to foreign satellite systems," said the report.
Sources in the private satellite industry said that in the last 15 years, no private company had succeeded in clearing ISRO’s red tapes to send a satellite to the orbital space over India, although at least five foreign satellites were placed on India’s orbital slots during the period. In 2013, a domestic satellite firm reportedly planned to approach prime minister Manmohan Singh for help. ISRO chairman K. Radhakrishnan, who did not respond to the firm's queries for months, reached out to its officials and requested them not to "escalate the matter to the PMO". The company has since not heard from ISRO.
"We have been trying for a long time to get our indigenously built satellites in the sky. But despite having policies in place, ISRO has been considering applications of domestic manufacturers at a very cautious pace," said Pranav Roach, managing director of Hughes Communications, a domestic satellite player.
According to industry experts, ISRO does not have the capability to launch satellites weighing more than two tonnes and, therefore, most private initiatives are not taken up. Since 2012, the agency has been looking to procure a Ku-band satellite and had floated a global tender for the purpose. It is yet to find any takers. "ISRO seeks transfer of technology with the tender. This is the prime reason why no one is interested," said a DoS official.
"So far, the men behind the Mars orbital mission are way below in communication satellite capacity, compared with smaller nations like Thailand or Malaysia," said Deepu Krishnan, senior consultant with Paris-based Euro Consult, a leading space consultancy firm. "If Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to materialise his digital India dream, then satellites are the only way to provide broadband connectivity to remote corners of India."
EYES ON HIGH
The Indian National Satellite (INSAT) system was set up in 1983 with the commissioning of INSAT-1B. The system provides a range of services, including weather forecast, telecommunications, television broadcast and disaster management. The communication satellites presently operated by ISRO are: INSAT-3A, INSAT-3C, INSAT-3E, INSAT-4A, INSAT-4B, INSAT-4CR, GSAT-8, GSAT-10 and GSAT-12. It has in space a total of 195 transponders in the C, extended C and Ku-bands. At least five Ku-band transponders are required to enable DTH service by one service provider.
The latest communications satellite launched by ISRO is GSAT-16. Weighing 3,181.6kg, it was launched by an European Ariane-5 rocket from the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana on December 7, 2014. It is positioned at 55 degrees east longitude in the geostationary orbit.
The 11th in the GSAT series, GSAT-16 is equipped with 48 Ku- and C-band transponders, the largest number of transponders carried by an ISRO satellite. There are 12 Ku-band transponders, 24 C-band transponders and 12 upper extended C-band transponders, each having 36 MHz usable bandwidth.