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MANTRAYA BRIEF#05: 07 MAY 2015

Reclaiming India’s Air Space

Bibhu Prasad Routray

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Abstract

New Delhi needs to worry with Chinese satellites taking over the air space in South Asia using a predatory pricing mechanism. The official policy striving towards a Digital India must take note of the past performance of ISRO and the DoS and reassess the future of India’s Open Sky policy, which might have allowed itself to be exploited by foreign powers.

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Can there be a scenario when a number of Indian states suddenly find themselves without access to real time television coverage, just because the satellite on which their popular channels are hosted has suddenly been switched off? However unreal this may sound, the Direct to Home (DTH) scene in India and the related scamper by the private operators in the country to find transponders could indeed be heading in that direction, especially when Chinese satellites, through a predatory pricing mechanism have started playing hosts to Indian television channels. Does that constitute a national security threat? This is a question the country’s security establishment must find an answer to.

In December 2014, GSAT-16 was launched into orbit carrying 24 C-band, 12 Ku and 12 extended C band transponders. The launch had been advanced by about six months to meet user needs, but came 11 months after the launch of GSAT-14 in January 2014. The launch of GSAT-15 will not happen till October 2015. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) predicts that a policy of launching these satellites, packed with more transponders than before and leasing of foreign transponders has taken care of the needs of the Indian DTH operators.

The reality, however, is different.

Since 2000, the year DTH services were launched in India, the government has been implementing an open sky policy which allow both Indian and foreign satellites to be used in DTH services with the condition that Indian Satellite would get preferential treatment. While there can be little disagreement with the broad ‘Open Sky’-policy, the history of implementation is replete with glaring shortcomings. The 2014 Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report, ‘Management of satellite capacity for DTH service by Department of Space’ for instance, details the missteps of the Department of State (DoS) over the past decade that has not only incurred heavy financial losses to the organisation, but the recurrent delays in satellite launches, power problems in the existing satellites, allocation of capacity for other purposes, which have made Indian DTH operators overtly dependant on foreign satellites.

Statement of Jitendra Singh, Minister of state for in the Prime Minister’s Office and Ministry of Personnel, in the Lok sabha in March 2015 is a reiteration of what the CAG report draws one’s attention to. Indian DTH operators currently use a total of 77.89 (36 MHz equivalent) Ku band. Since “sufficient capacity of Ku Band transponders is not available in INSAT/GSAT satellites”, out of the total 77.89 transponders, only 19 transponders, amounting to 24 percent are in INSAT/GSAT satellites and the rest leased from foreign satellites. The government is in the process of allocating 46 transponders (in C, Extended-C and Ku Bands), which are vacant at present.

While it is a fact that no single satellite operator will be able to fulfil immediate or future demand for satellite capacity in the country, the glaring loopholes on DoS’ inability to come up with Ku band (Kurtz-under band, used predominantly for satellite telecast) satellite capacity for DTH services commensurate with the demand in the sector and requirement for national and strategic applications is glaring.

TV penetration in India is at 60 percent, much lower than in developed countries where it is greater than 90 percent. According to a study by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), a gradual acceleration in pay TV penetration will drive major growth for the television sector in five years, aided by the digitisation of cable TV in India. The demand for the Ku-band capacity used by Indian DTH operators, thus, is projected to remain high, as the operators strive to accommodate more HD channels in the time to come. A large number of requests for TV license to the tune of over 300 are pending with the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. By 2017, India has the potential to accommodate more than 1,500 licensed channels. Demand for more number of high definition (HD) channels make the search for transponders even more intense and can to an extent lead to a national security issue.

In December 2014, the Raj Television Group, with a bouquet of 13 channels predominantly catering to audience in South India, moved from Asiasat-5 satellite, operated by the Hong Kong based Asia Satellite Telecommunications Company to Chinese government owned Chinasat-12, citing its vision for “betterment in quality and need for additional bandwidth for its future expansion plans.” A representative of the network confirmed that Chinasat-12, with 28 Ku band and another 28 C-band transponders, is a much better platform for the Group’s expansion plans. The main reason for such shift, however, is the dumping prices Chinasat-12 has offered to Television channels switching to its platform.

Today Chinasat-12 carries several Afghan TV channels belonging to the Tolo group, Negaah TV, Noorin TV and Khurshid TV. Chinasat-12, also called Zhongxing-12, has also leased payload to Sri Lanka and co-brands itself as SupremeSat-I, hyped as the island nation’s first ever satellite. Similarly, several channels from Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan today have been offered transponders on Chinese satellites, all with predatory dumping prices.

Is this a mere business strategy by the Chinese or should it ring any national security alarm bells in New Delhi? In December 2012, the ISRO initiated a Request for Proposal (RFP), the second one after a similarly worded RFP in 2011, to obtain responses from interested foreign satellite operators for leasing satellites with transponders working in Ku and C-band frequencies. All three satellite providers from China have participated in the bidding process. One of these satellites actually shows Arunachal Pradesh as a part of China and the same is not a part of the India beam. Incidentally, the Chinese policy is not to allow landing rights to any foreign satellites.

New Delhi worries about the Chinese strategy of ‘string of pearls’ – Beijing seeking to set up listening posts all across the Indian ocean encircling India. Doesn’t New Delhi need to worry with Chinese satellites taking over the air space in South Asia using a predatory pricing mechanism? The solution is obviously not putting in a prohibitive mechanism, but streamlining the process in which ISRO and its marketing arm make the process of leasing transponders easy, fast and safe. The official policy striving towards a Digital India  must take note of the past performance of ISRO and the DoS and reasses the future of India’s Open Sky policy, which might have allowed itself to be exploited by foreign powers.

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(Bibhu Prasad Routray is Director of Mantraya)

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