Column : Where?s the ISRO scam?

While telecom spectrum can be re-used a million times, satellite spectrum cannot and that is why the latter costs so much less. For a long time, firms have been trying to take away the S-band from space and give it to BWA services. Hence all the ?scam? noise!

The ISRO-Antrix-Devas ?scam? is once again in the news with Dr Rodham Narasimhan, member, Space Commission, resigning from the Space Commission over the treatment meted out to distinguished scientists like Madhavan Nair who headed ISRO at the time the Antrix-Devas deal took place. As someone who has been associated both with satellites and telecom (I worked with Inmarsat for 10 years, was on the board of Intelsat for 7 years and headed VSNL for 7 years), I can very clearly say there was no scam, the scam was in the over-active mind of some media houses (the others followed like sheep!) and some telecom firms who have been lobbying for a long time to try and take away the S-band spectrum (2.5-2.9 GHz) that Antrix-Devas was going to operate in and to hand that over to telecom firms who were interested in using the spectrum to offer terrestrial broadband services.

There are several facets to the case, including the fact that had ISRO not found a use for its valuable S-band orbital slots that it got after years of struggle and fights in the ITU fora (International Telecom Union decides on the frequency allotment for various services the world over), it would have lost these slots forever. The Antrix-Devas proposal not only sought to use these slots, it was bringing in advanced technologies and innovative services, but this article focuses on just the wrong impression created in the media and the knee-jerk response of the government system thereafter, leading to blacklisting scientists whom the nation owes a debt of gratitude to, and without even giving them a fair hearing.

The most important charge made, evidently bought by the CAG as well, is that Antrix-Devas was planning to use spectrum for offering broadband services in cities and villages while, for the same service, telecom firms had bid vastly higher amounts. In 2010, the amount bid for a broadband licence across the country was R36,000 crore?while this gave the firm 20 MHz of spectrum in the 2.1GHz band, Antrix-Devas was getting about 70MHz amount of spectrum in the 2.5GHz band. Having said that, keep in mind the government also never got around to pricing satellite spectrum?how it can then turnaround and blame ISRO is truly baffling.

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There is little doubt that, had the 2.5GHz band of spectrum been auctioned in 2010, it too would have got a higher value than that paid by Devas to Antrix, though possibly lower than that paid for broadband spectrum?the higher the frequencies, the greater the need to set up base stations on the ground, which makes capex rise. But the point you have to keep in mind is that the policy did not allow for 2.5GHz spectrum to be used for terrestrial use, so where is the loss? It is like arguing that you have got a lower value by selling land for agriculture as you could have got 50 times as much since the land can be used for office space as well! Of course you can, but that can happen only when the land usage is changed and when that happens, the government mops up much of the gain through conversion charges.

So even if the new telecom policy separated spectrum from licensing, all licences?broadband internet or the UASL?specify the spectrum band which is to be used. The moment Antrix-Devas were to use their spectrum for internet services, they would have had to go to the Department of Telecom and get permission, and the DoT would have then mopped up any advantage they were getting. In 2003, to cite a similar example, the government asked Reliance and Tatas to take on another licence when it regularised their offering mobile phone services on a fixed land licence?they had to pay the same licence fee paid by the cellular mobile phone firms.

But why does satellite-based spectrum cost so much less than terrestrial spectrum if they can both be used for offering the same internet services? Because of the inherent propagation characteristics of the airwaves, a frequency in a terrestrial system can be used many times more that the same frequency in a satellite environment. Typically, while a satellite can service tens of thousands of users at the same time using a certain amount of bandwidth, a terrestrial user can service tens of millions. Cellular mobile firms are using some 100MHz of spectrum to cater to around 900 million users. However, if the same spectrum is used in satellite, the number of users, depending upon reusability, could be a few lakh. It is this reusability factor that enhances the spectrum value in terrestrial applications. Of course, this capacity can be enhanced by additional compressions technologies by a factor of 4 or 5, but would still be nowhere equal to the reusability of a terrestrial system.

Interestingly, a point that everyone seems to miss is that at the time the Antrix-Devas deal took place, around 2004, there were no takers for the spectrum?had there been an auction of spectrum, the in-thing nowadays, you may not have got a value very different from what was got. At that time, even the demands of the defence forces were limited and 3G/BWA were not heard of in those days.

But why was Antrix giving out all its capacity to just one company, Devas? The total S-band transponder leased capacity to be made available to Devas is 56.7MHz, a fraction of the total of 300MHz bandwidth available in S-band to ISRO/DOS (2 x 115MHz in the downlink and 2 x 35MHz in the uplink). ISRO/DOS has 4 orbital slots available to it in S-band, which can be optimally used to increase the bandwidth further. Exclusivity is to be understood from the total capacity available with DOS/ISRO/Antrix for meeting the requirement of different parties and not limited to capacity on one or two satellites. There are instances when DOS/ ISRO/Antrix has leased all the capacity available on a satellite to a single party. For example, all the 12 transponders Ku-band capacity available on INSAT-4A was leased to Tatasky. Requirements of Airtel, Sun TV have been met through other satellites, for example INSAT-4CR and INSAT-4B. Any other private agency could have approached DOS/ISRO/Antrix and got capacities built for them.

I wish the worthies in the media, and more important those in the government, had given our eminent scientists a fair hearing before painting them as black sheep. All of them have devoted their lives to India?s space mission at miserable salaries, and this is what they get in return, because there are nationals and multinationals wanting to kill this innovative project meant to reach out to areas where no terrestrial system would ever reach or these people would venture to reach.

The author is senior principal, Dua Consulting, and has been CMD, VSNL

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First published on: 28-02-2012 at 01:38 IST