At one level, it is a matter of policy and operational prudence. At another, however, India’s open sky policy that allows the country’s private direct-to-home (DTH) operators to lease transponders on foreign satellites can translate into a national security issue. In the days to come, as the scamper for transponders become even more intense, certain questions regarding the past performance of the Department of Space and the growing ability of foreign satellites to influence India’s digital scenario will have to be considered.
In December 2014, the GSAT-16 satellite was launched into the orbit, carrying 24 C-band, 12 Ku-band 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.
Prior to 2000—the year DTH services were launched in India—the government put in place the policy for implementing an open sky policy which would allow both Indian and foreign satellites to be used in DTH services with the condition that Indian satellites would get preferential treatment. While there can be little disagreement with this broad “open sky” policy, the history of implementation is replete with glaring shortcomings by ISRO and the ministry of information & broadcasting in its interpretation and application of the policy.
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 Space over the past decade that have not only incurred heavy financial losses to the organisation, but the recurrent delays in satellite launches, power problems in the existing satellites and allocation of capacity for other purposes have made Indian DTH operators overtly dependant on foreign satellites.
The statement of Jitendra Singh—minister of state for development of north eastern region (independent charge), PMO, personnel-public grievances & pensions, Department of Atomic Energy and Department of Space—in the Lok Sabha in March 2015 is a reiteration of the CAG report’s findings. Indian DTH operators currently use a total of 77.89 (36 MHz equivalent) Ku-band (Kurtz-under band, used predominantly for satellite telecast). Of these, only 19 transponders are in INSAT/GSAT satellites and the rest leased from foreign satellites. The reason for such a lopsided state of affairs is the insufficient Ku-band transponders available in INSAT/GSAT satellites. While no single satellite operator will be able to fulfil immediate or future demand for satellite capacity in the country, the loopholes on the Department of Space’s inability to come up with Ku-band satellite capacity for DTH services commensurate with the demand in the sector and requirement for national and strategic applications are glaring.
Television penetration in India is at 60%. According to a study by the Confederation of Indian Industry, a gradual acceleration in pay television penetration will drive major growth for the sector in the next five years, aided by the digitisation of cable TV in India. The demand for the Ku-band capacity used by Indian DTH operators, therefore, is projected to remain high, as the operators strive to accommodate more high definition (HD) channels and introduce 4K/UHD channels in the time to come. By 2017, India has the potential to accommodate more than 1,500 licensed channels. The demand for more number of HD and 4K/UHD channels make the search for transponders even more intense and can, to an extent, lead to a national security issue.
In December 2014, Raj Television Network, 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 network’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 television 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 2014, ISRO initiated a request for proposal (RFP), the third one after a similarly worded RFP in 2012 and 2011, to obtain responses from interested foreign satellite operators for leasing satellites with transponders working in Ku-band and C-band frequencies. Three satellite providers from China have participated in the bidding process. Incidentally, north-eastern India figures in the China beam and not India beam of these satellites. Moreover, the Chinese policy is not to allow landing rights to any foreign satellites, including India.
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. Chinese satellites taking over the air space in South Asia using a predatory pricing mechanism could be an equally worrying phenomenon. Scenarios of these satellites switching off and leaving Indians with zero access to real-time electronic coverage cannot be misplaced. 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.
Bibhu Prasad Routray
The author is a New Delhi-based security analyst; he also served as deputy director in the National Security Council Secretariat.