ISRO is unable to keep pace with booming demand for transponders from the private broadcasting sector
From its inception in 1969, the national space programme has been a source of pride and inspiration for most Indians. Consider the keenness with which Indians follow every launch, cheering as the spacecraft hurtles into space.
Successive chiefs of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) have emphasised the space programme’s pro-people and development agenda as its raison d’être while downplaying its commercial aspects as a by-product of its core function. Bracketed with its cousins, atomic energy and defence research, the Department of Space has some 100 users for its satellite communication applications alone.
One of these is the private/commercial television broadcasting sector. It is tempting to see how the high-profile space sector stacks up in the context of this popular user, which has 820 channels and is consumed by 130 million homes.
The state-run ISRO is the sole provider of satellite capacity — or transponders — for broadcasters and other public and private users of space applications in the country. The private TV industry claims it is seriously starved of satellite capacity for its operations. Over a decade ago, ISRO, faced with a demand it could not meet from its own satellites, routed operators through transponders temporarily leased on foreign satellites.
According to a recent report on the broadcasting industry, the supply gap on Indian satellites for this sector has only widened over the years. With the television sector poised for massive growth over the next five years, the gap will only increase further. The report entitled “Easing India’s Capacity Crunch: An assessment of demand and supply for television satellite transponders” (hereafter Report), published by the Hong Kong-based Cable & Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia (CASBAA) and consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) India states that 75 per cent of the 820-odd private channels are beaming into Indian homes through leases on foreign satellites. While ISRO tightly regulates this lease, it provides only 25 per cent of industry requirements on its own INSAT/GSAT communication satellites.
Not enough satellites
Simply put, there aren’t enough Indian satellites up there to beam for our private television industry, which generated a total turnover of Rs.39,800 crore in 2012.
Broadcasters beam in two frequency bands, technically called the C-band and the Ku-band; the latter is used by the Direct to Home segment. The report estimates that ISRO’s satellites supply only 18 of the 31 C-band transponders they currently need, and 18 of the 73 Ku band transponders required by the six private DTH operators — Airtel Digital, Dish TV, Reliance Digital, Sun Direct, Tata Sky and Videocon d2h. The rest of their requirement is run on foreign satellites.
How this crisis?
When the industry was expanding in the late 1990s and early 2000s, “everybody underestimated the potential of the Indian market,” says CASBAA’s Chief Policy Officer John Medeiros.
Smitha Jha, Leader, Entertainment & Media Practice in PwC, and author of the report, says that INSAT capacity has not been augmented in the last three consecutive years. One reason is that two Indian satellite launches failed in a row.
In 2010, ISRO lost two entire communications satellites (GSAT-4 and GSAT-5P) while launching them on its GSLV test vehicle; it also soon lost half of INSAT-4B which got crippled in orbit. (As a result, the GSLV rocket programme, meant to locally launch new communication satellites, also got bogged down.) All this set back the nation by some 50 transponders.
ISRO Chairman K. Radhakrishnan in a statement last year had said the space agency fell greatly behind its 11th Plan target of creating 500 transponders. It ended up with only about half this number in 2012. Of the total number of 263 transponders in use in the country as of September 2012, the INSAT/GSAT fleet provides 168. ISRO hired 95 transponders on foreign satellites to meet its overall demand. (Capacity for broadcasters has been leased on foreign satellites such as ABS-1, Apstar-7, Asiasat-3S; Asiasat-5, Intelsat 7/10/20, Intelsat 17, MEASAT-3/3A and SES-7.) Here lies the broadcasters’ worry: with licensed channels projected to increase to 1,300 by 2017 (when the current 12th Plan ends) they would need 54 C-band and 222 Ku-band transponders. Ms Jha says this figure does not include a backup in case a working satellite switches off midlife.
How has this gap been addressed? “There is a large demand to be fulfilled and the INSATs are not sufficient. We are following two-three routes to meet the demand,” Dr. Radhakrishnan had said in 2011. The organisation is working to send large, improved four-and six-tonne satellites to meet the INSAT demand. In 2011, it tried to plug the shortage in two years by further leases and buying a satellite in orbit, but neither has transponders in new orbital locations.
The 12th Plan working group on Space noted that the space agency needs to “pursue rigorously to secure spectrum” for another 100 Ku-band and 50 C-band / extended C-band transponders.
ISRO reckons that its 2017 tally should touch 400 transponders, including 102 in the C and 158 in Ku bands. But that would still fall below the last Plan target of 500 transponders, as well as the broadcasters’ projected needs.
Leasing of INSAT transponders generates roughly 60 per cent (around Rs.600 crore) of the revenue of ISRO’s commercial arm Antrix Corporation. In hindsight, the space agency, at the first sign of a brewing capacity crisis, probably ought to have single-mindedly pushed its communication satellites agenda above all else and speeded up this pipeline. Some industry watchers believe there was an overemphasis in the last decade on remote-sensing satellites and projects such as Chandrayaan-1, tele-education and tele-medicine.
More than mere foreign leases, the broadcasting industry is anguished by an outdated ISRO rule of three-year leases, after which it must seek fresh approvals all over again for the same satellite, or for small additional space on it. “It does not make sense for ISRO to play middleman for the same [approved] satellite,” Ms Jha points out.
According to Mr. Medeiros, nothing scares a DTH broadcaster more than the prospect of having to move 5-10 million subscribers to a newly-leased satellite, literally antenna by antenna, when an old lease expires. he industry wants foreign satellite leases to be contracted for 10-15-years as it gives it reasonable prices and longer security in space. It also suggests automatic renewal on the same satellite, tying up with foreign operators for long-term deals; and a single window approval through multiple ministries [Space, Telecommunications, Home and Information & Broadcasting.] The 2000 SatCom Policy allows privately owned Indian satellites; they cannot happen without supportive policies, Mr. Medeiros says.
The report fears that in the coming years, the Ku band will be further squeezed by expanding segments like high-definition television, digital satellite news gathering, very small aperture terminals and digital cinema. It worries about having to share the C band realm with terrestrial wireless operators. Any new ISRO capacity will also have to feed developmental, defence and other priorities. With all transponder-using groups hitting a high growth curve, it appears unlikely that the great Indian space hole will close any time soon.