Space is a ruthless environment, and space business, a battle of resources and grit. Every time a big satellite or rocket goes up, an epic event of adventure and exploration is part of the fare. The last two weeks brought to light all of this and more. The Indian space agency’s heaviest satellite till date, GSAT-11, which was parked in French Guiana for a lift-off in mid-May, was recalled due to a snag. The only official communication to come out of Antriksh Bhavan in Bengaluru was that it was “rescheduled”, and that “the revised launch date will be communicated subsequently”.
Once again, the signalling was lost. And we are not talking space. Increasingly, the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) looks to be in a reactive mode. GSAT-11 is a high-throughput satellite with 40 transponders in frequency bands, Ku and Ka, that are primarily meant for direct broadcast and broadband from space. Who are its customers? State-owned telecom companies who need to take broadband to unserved regions under the aggressive “Digital India” drive? Or satellite operators and service providers who’d be happy to consider satellite as an option to sell high-speed broadband to people across the country? It’s not public yet, but most likely, it’s the former.
Before the GSAT-11 news broke, in a closed-door meeting in Delhi on 18 April, the Isro chairman, K Sivan, met leading broadcasters who’ve been airing the view that the space agency has gridlocked their industry. Indian broadcasters, who are using transponders on foreign satellites, have been asked to shift to Isro satellites.
You’d think if the government is forcing the move, it’d offer some benefits to the industry in lieu of asking to break contractual agreements with foreign satellite operators. No, nothing of that sort is in order. Instead, people privy to the 18 April meeting say, once again, Isro has given no clarity on its transponder capacity or timelines on the GSAT series of communication satellites.
As it happened, after the discussion, the Isro chairman’s team was “embarrassed” at the way the space agency has engaged with the industry so far. He promised to make transponder capacity and satellite details available on their website soon. “The chairman said he did not want to comment on what his predecessors did, but agreed to bring out a stakeholders engagement plan,” said a person who followed that meeting.
All of this brings us to GSAT-11 and its follow-on satellite GSAT-20, both meant to be in orbit this year to beam internet from space. Assuming their launch is not further delayed (also assuming that unlike in the past, they have a business plan in place to utilise all the broadband transponders), Isro transponders will still not be sufficient to address the gap that broadband services have.