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GSAT-12: Boosting Transponder Demand

Gp Capt Ajey Lele (Retd.) is a Consultant at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • July 19, 2011

    A successful PSLV (Polar satellite Launch Vehicle) launch by the Indian space research organisation (ISRO) does not receive much attention because it is expected to succeed given its track record. However, the July 15, 2011 PSLV C-17 launch - the 18th successful launch in succession - was different. It was only the second flight of the PSLV-XL, a vehicle designed to put a geostationary satellite into orbit (it was was first employed in 2002 to launch the meteorological satellite Kaplana-1). Also, this was only the second mission in which six extended solid strap-on motors were used during the first stage of launch. The strap-on motors had earlier been used during the launch of India’s first moon mission in 2008.

    The PSLV C-17 has successfully placed the communication satellite GSAT-12 in orbit. It has 12 communication transponders in extended C band meant for tele-education and tele-medicine. With this India’s overall transponder capacity has reached 187. Hitherto, satellites carrying these transponders were placed in orbit either by foreign launch vehicles or the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicles (GSLV) procured from Russia. However, India’s failure to develop indigenous cryogenic engine technology has delayed the GSLV programme and hence the ability to launch geostationary satellites. It is to overcome this limitation and expand the transponder capacity that ISRO has modified the PSLV technology to place a satellite in geostationary orbit.

    Another significant feature of this launch is that it has used an advanced mission computer with indigenous processors for navigation, guidance and control of the rocket. This success of the ISRO is praiseworthy. Another first of this mission is that a woman scientist headed this GSAT-12 project. GSAT-12 has a projected life span of eight years and is expected to replace INSAT-3B (launched on March 21, 2000/lifespan of 12 years). This system operating in extended C-band requires bigger dishes but also has the benefit of covering a wider geographical area. The major advantage of this frequency band is that it performs better under adverse weather conductions like rain, thunderstorms, etc. GSAT-12 would particularly benefit villages in the state of Karnataka and a few other areas by helping to improve the tele-medicine services offered by various government hospitals. This would make real time consultation possible with city based specialists even in respect of neurosurgery and neurology. Various pathological and other reports like CT scans, MRIs, etc. would be transmitted to specialists in real time for seeking their opinion.

    GSAT-12 is also expected to provide services for the Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) sector. VSAT systems provide dedicated and cost effective private communications links for individual and commercial users. Such systems carry secure data, voice and video communications and are easily installable and require smaller antennae. VSAT systems also have applicability in various fields ranging from petroleum to banking/insurance to military.

    The larger issue which the GSAT-12 launch brings to the fore is that of the mounting demand for satellite transponders and India’s capabilities in this regard. Because of certain failures in the past, today ISRO is not in a position to meet the ever growing needs of the market. In fact between April 2007 and 2011, ISRO’s transponder strength has come down from 211 to 141, while it had set a very ambitious target for itself of having 500 transponders by March 2012. Now, as per the fresh assessment, ISRO’s transponder strength is estimated to reach 215 by April 2012.

    ISRO has a responsibility to overcome this deficiency. It is important to note that under the government’s Satcom policy the user community in India is not allowed to procure transponders directly from foreign satellite operators; this can only be facilitated by ISRO. ISRO is reported to have taken on lease 86 and a half foreign transponders but the requirement far exceeds the present availability. India has already blocked a few orbital slots in advance for putting satellites in space as per international norms. However, India is not in position to fill these slots in the near future by launching its own satellites. ISRO is exploring the possibility of allowing foreign satellites to fill these slots for the short term. By doing this it will be possible to increase the transponder capacity to 320.

    Globally more than 6,000 communication transponders are available in space and a 30 to 35 per cent increase in transponder capacity is foreseen in the next five years. Presently, India is experiencing a major media boom. The Indian government is following a policy of the digitisation of broadcast signals. Mainly, multimedia and high-definition (HD) television are being viewed as the future growth drivers. It is important to note that today India is managing more than 30 per cent of its requirement with leased capacity. Since India has failed to attain self sufficiency ISRO’s commercial arm, Antrix, is losing hundreds of crores in revenue every year. Also, overdependence on foreign agencies is inadvisable for obvious geopolitical reasons.

    ISRO has major demands from DTH broadcasters, VSAT operators and agencies involved in disaster management support. However, there has been no talk about the demands of the security agencies. Repeated terrorist attacks on Mumbai have revealed the importance of military communication. Does India have a dedicated transponders policy for military communication? What is India’s road map for the future? The time has come to raise and debate these issues. It would help to assure the population that the state is investing in secure satellite based military communication systems that provide the Indian military a major advantage over its adversaries and also incorporate at least some deterrence value with respect to both state and non-state actors.