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Scam waiting to happen at Isro?

delhi Updated: Feb 13, 2011 23:39 IST
Charu Sudan Kasturi
Charu Sudan Kasturi
Hindustan Times
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Sun Direct, one of the many Direct-to-Home (DTH) television service providers, had to wait three years before it could lease Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) transponders in 2008.

Two years later, after a power failure on the Isro satellite its transponders (devices which receive and transmit signals) were piggybacking on, Sun Direct decided to partly shift its DTH project to another satellite MEASAT-3, owned by Malaysian firm ASTRO.

The government is scrapping the controversial deal between Isro’s commercial arm Antrix and Bangalore-based multimedia firm Devas.

But the Sun Direct experience is one among many reflecting dual challenges of a demand-supply gap at Isro accompanied by fierce competition — a recipe for future scams, space scientists and administrators are warning.

“The massive demand-supply gap, coupled with the prospect of losing business to other firms offering satellite services, represents the key ingredient that can encourage the bending of rules — either for individual interest or for the perceived interest of the agency,” a senior space scientist said, speaking to HT strictly on condition of anonymity.

From DTH service providers to banks seeking to expand their ATM network, companies today are seeking Isro services to meet their goals.

Eight Isro satellites — INSAT-2E, INSAT-3B, INSAT-3C, INSAT-3A, INSAT-3E, INSAT-4B, INSAT-4CR launched between 1999 and 2007 are currently carrying transponders leased to these firms. TataSky, Sun Direct, Bharathi Telemedia and DD Direct are among the major DTH service providers using these satellites.

But a shortage of transponders means Isro either has to ask clients to wait, or loan transponders from foreign agencies. “If two of our satellites were to conk out, the country’s ATM network would be severely debilitated. That is the dependence on Isro satellites today,” said a senior Isro official.

A key reason for the dependence of firms on satellite communication is absence of an extensive network of fiber-optic cables, the official pointed out. This forces firms to turn to satellites for services that can be offered via terrestrial routes.

The competition Isro faces comes from firms like Singapore Telecom, Taiwan-based Chungwa Telecom, the European New Skies and ASTRO.