Tuesday, July 22, 2008
THERE IS ONE more Insat communication satellite in space. The Indian Space Research Organisation's newest bird, Insat-3E, was successfully put into orbit early Sunday morning aboard Europe's Ariane 5 rocket. Operations to move the satellite to its allotted position 36,000 km above the equator have begun. Insat-3E will join four other Insats already in orbit, making the Insat system, in ISRO's words, "one of the largest domestic communication satellite systems in the Asia Pacific region." After the 3E becomes operational, the Insat system will have 128 transponders available for communications and broadcasting. ISRO intends to double that capacity by 2007.
ISRO's success with the Insats has been, as with its other endeavours, the result of farsighted planning. Vikram Sarabhai, who began the space programme, foresaw even in the 1960s how satellites could provide telephony and TV services in a vast and poorly connected country like India. In the mid-1970s, using an American satellite, ISRO conducted the world's earliest large-scale experiment in direct TV broadcasting. Over 2,000 villages all over the country were equipped with direct reception sets. This was long before cable TV or direct-to-home broadcasting was thought of. With the experimental APPLE satellite launched in 1981, ISRO got its first experience of building its own communications satellite.
When ISRO mooted the idea of building an Indian satellite system, the Insats, neither the Ministry of Communications nor the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting — which would be the principal user agencies — was enthusiastic. Both thought that their ground infrastructure sufficed. Considerable persuasion was necessary before the two departments, along with the Ministry of Civil Aviation (which in those days had charge of the India Meteorological Department), agreed jointly to fund the first Insats. The Insat-1 satellites were built in the United States and launched abroad. Even here, ISRO took over the handling of these satellites immediately after launch. The first of the Insat-2 satellites, which were designed and built within the country, was launched in 1992. Four more Insat-2s were built and launched in rapid succession. They had their problems, often for reasons beyond ISRO's control. But then so did the foreign-built Insat-1s. The Insat-2 satellites raised the Insat transponder capacity manyfold and put the Insat system squarely on the map. The Insat-3 satellites have undoubtedly benefited from ISRO's experience with their predecessors.
ISRO has demonstrated that it can build world class communication satellites. One of its aims must now be to make sure the Insat system serves much of the country's communications and broadcasting needs. The private sector is already the dominant force in satellite TV broadcasts, but many private TV channels are currently carried on foreign satellites. Likewise, private sector investments in telecommunications will only grow. At a time when international satellite companies want to expand their share of the Indian market, the Insats must be able to attract private sector customers and not get restricted to serving Government agencies. ISRO has already taken some steps to make it easier for companies to lease Insat transponders. Even so, the procedures for allocating and leasing transponders remain cumbersome. Since aggressive marketing could hold the key to Insat's future growth, ISRO needs to ponder further steps. For instance, is the Insat Coordination Committee, on which the three primary Government user departments are represented and which controls the allocation of the Insat transponders, still necessary? Another issue is whether corporatisation in some form of the Insat system will help. These are thorny issues no doubt, but for that very same reason, they need to be resolved speedily.