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ISRO left poorer by transponder crunch, foreign leases

Madhumathi D.S.

Bangalore, Jan. 7

National space agency ISRO's lease of a record number of 75 transponders on foreign satellites to meet the shortage caused by three failures in 2010 could deprive its commercial arm a revenue of nearly over Rs 400 crore a year.

ISRO has leased transponders from Intelsat, Malaysia's Measat-3, Russia's Intersputnik and SES America. It has 165 transponders on its nine INSAT satellites, which means nearly a third of the country's satellite-based traffic is dependent on foreign satellites.

Mr S. Satish, spokesman and Director, Publicity and Public Relations, said, “The (foreign) transponders were leased a couple of years back,” without specifying the duration of the lease.

The agency lost nearly 50 transponders during the three failures last year — on December 25, the GSat-5P with 36 transponders failed to launch; in April, the GSat-4 failed to launch; and in July last, half of the 24 transponders on a working satellite, Insat-4B, went dead prematurely.

Of course, commercial users — including television channels, direct-to-home broadcasters and VSATs — pay the foreign operators through ISRO's business arm, Antrix Corporation.

Lease of transponders is the main revenue stream of Antrix Corporation, which posted a turnover of around Rs 1,000 crore for 2009-10. The revenue would have increased had the INSAT capacity not been impaired.

The Indian National Satellite (INSAT) constellation — touted as Asia's largest satellite fleet that keeps hundreds of television channels, telephones, weather offices and Internet services up and running— has probably never before faced the kind of capacity crunch it does now, say sources in the organisation.

Most of the leased capacity is in the higher Ku band that supports DTH services, while only six are in the C-band. Going by average international rates, a Ku-band transponder costs $1.25 million and a C-band transponder $1 million a year, Mr Satish told Business Line. He said the situation would ease after 36 transponders are added this year. GSat-8 with 24 Ku-band transponders is due for launch in March and the GSat-12 with 12 transponders in the extended C band, towards the yearend.

For the first time, the organisation has gone into war mode to tackle the capacity crisis. It recently enlisted Dr K. Kasturirangan, Planning Commission Member and former ISRO Chairman, to suggest strategies to overcome the shortage. It will also look into the issue of GSLV satellite launchers to ensure continued home launches for communications satellites, ISRO said. The reports will be submitted to another senior panel by the end of January.

Of the satellites currently functioning, the ageing Insat-2E, launched in 1999, needs to be quickly replaced by a new satellite before it dies out. That leaves 3A, 3B, 3C, 3E, 4A, 4CR, half of 4B and GSat-2 for communications and the mainly weather satellite Kalpana-1 in working condition.

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