Process is on to offer Ka-band services without auction: Is it a backdoor deal?

Lalit Shastri

A few weeks ago an innocuous notice appeared on the ISRO/Department of Space Website. The notice referred to an application dated 1 July 2016 filed by one Jupiter Satellite India Limited for securing an Indian orbital slot at 104 degrees East longitude to provide Ka-band services for broadband beams covering the Indian mainland and Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The notice was put out by CAISS, the Committee for Administration of the Indian Satellite System. To the uninitiated, the notice makes no sense but if one delves deeper it is the making of another Antrix-Devas¹.

Newsroom24x7 did some research. Some years back when the SATCOM Policy (Satellite Communication Policy) was formulated by the Government, it incidentally was not put on ISRO’s website till recently. Under the policy, an operator can set up an Indian satellite system on fulfilling certain conditions. Once a satellite is procured or launched whether from India or abroad, the control station has to be brought inside India within a year and they are subject to Department of Telecom and Ministry Information and Broadcasting norms and control. The orbital slot if procured from another sovereign country has to be transferred to the Indian administration. The operator would thereafter pay royalty and other fees to the Government of India.

It is to be noted that orbital slots are allotted by International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to countries and not companies. ITU is the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies – ICTs. This body allocates global radio spectrum and satellite orbits. Now here lies the catch. The orbital slot has been applied by India which has priority. In many countries, the orbital slots are auctioned off to satellite operators for a finite period to operate their services. In the case of Jupiter, a company registered with the Registrar of Companies in India, the matter has been hanging before 2016 and its application had been rejected by the Government.

Ka-band is a new band opening for high speed Internet services and ISRO plans to put in orbit the GSAT 11 which has developed a glitch before launch from Kourou, French Guiana. The already launched GSAT 19 is still to get its gateways and ground stations in place. This part of the business is highly lucrative and in Jupiter’s favour as they have their systems ready though the launch and operationalisation is perhaps a few years away.

According to available information, a procession of bureaucrats, technocrats and ex-chairmen of ISRO did not touch  application in question even with a barge pole. Jupiter, which has links with Hughes of the USA, then began lobbying and there was tremendous pressure from officials in Department of Telecom and at other places to grant the approval. After initiating the process for according in-principle approval, the application has been put on the website for objections. The Prime Minister perhaps was never apprised of this issue. In the Antrix-Devas deal an orbital slot in S-band was given in the most opaque manner. The latest oblique move smacks of the same reasoning. An expression of interest should have been first put out enumerating the available slots followed by an auction as decreed by the Supreme Court. Otherwise, it smacks of a back-door deal. Will the PMO please take note and have this  matter examined independently threadbare?

¹ Antrix Corporation Limited is a Public Sector Undertaking and is an arm of the Department of Space, Government of India. It had entered into a commercial contract on January 28, 2005 with Devas Multi Media Private Limited for lifetime lease of 90 per cent capacity of S Band Transponder of 2 satellites, built by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) [GSAT – 6 and 6A]. However, after the signing of the agreement, it was realised by the Government of India that the Antrix–Devas lease agreement on GSAT-6 and 6A would take away most of the total S band spectrum available and subsequently the CBI after conducting an investigation registered an FIR in the Antrix-Devas scam.

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