Given that Hughes Network Systems India had applied for permission to set up a Ka-band satellite in April 2010—a Ka-band satellite has approximately 30-50 times the capacity of a regular Ku-band satellite—it has to be particularly galling that the Department of Space is, 18 months later, inviting parties to tie up with it to develop similar satellites. More so since, just a few months ago, the Department of Space asked Hughes to “kindly bear with us and await our response in due course”; besides, since the potential partners are expected to design, develop, fabricate and operationalise the satellite, it is evident the government body has little expertise of its own, and is really doing little other than exercising the quasi-monopoly status it has in the satellite business in the country.
But the issue goes far beyond one company. At the core is the failure of ISRO to meet its own target of providing 500 transponders during the 11th Plan period (2007-12)—ISRO has only 187 transponders operational right now, including those leased from foreign satellites. According to industry estimates, India needs around 400 transponders to meet the needs of DTH, cable, VSATs and broadband among others. And the demand-supply mismatch is set to get a lot worse with time. As anyone with a broadband connection knows, the need for bandwidth increases in direct proportion to the amount of bandwidth available with new users coming up every day. With 4 lakh megapixels per frame, for instance, you can fit in 4-5 TV channels on a single transponder today, but once you move to high-definition TV, you’re down to just 1 channel per transponder. Which is why last month, the telecom regulator which also regulates cable and broadcast asked ISRO to take a re-look at the satellite policy. Giving ISRO a monopoly may serve a purpose, but not if it compromises India’s ability to offer vital communication services including broadband in which, there are enough studies to show, the demand is all set to grow dramatically. It’s time for an open skies policy to allow more satellite operators in.