Television

'Isro is sizably increasing number of transponders for various DTH operators' : SB Iyer - Isro contract management & legal services director

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India is emerging as the only country where so many direct-to-home (DTH) service providers have expressed their intent to join the race. Tata Sky Ltd, a 80:20 joint venture between Tatas and Rupert Murdoch-controlled Star, is preparing for launch with a ramp up plan of 18 Ku-band transponders. Anil Ambani's Reliance has a launch plan with six transponders, going up to 18. Then there is Kalanithi Maran's Sun Direct which will start with five transponders and stabilise at nine. Subhash Chandra's Dish TV and Doordarshan's Direct Plus are already on NSS-6, but have migration plans. State-owned BPCL is also chalking out its DTH plans.

So is there space on satellite for these DTH operators? Can the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) rise up to the challenge? To find out whether DTH can grow unbridled by infrastructural bottlenecks in India, Indiantelevision.com's Sibabrata Das and Taro W meet up with ISRO contract management and legal services director SB Iyer at Bangalore.



A B.Tech from IIT Madras and an MBA from IIM Ahmedabad, Iyer joined Isro in 1974. He worked in Insat-1 project team from 1978-91. He is currently looking after launch vehicle and satellite contracts, transponder marketing, insurance and long term planning of Insat capacity.

In an exclusive interview, Iyer says Isro is gearing up to meet the requirement of Ku-band transponder capacity in India. He also reveals Isro's growth plans.

Excerpts:

How is ISRO gearing up to meet the sudden burst of demand for satellite space from DTH players?

We are adding 36 Ku-band transponders between November-June 2006. The Insat series - 4A, 4B and 4C - will be launched within this time frame. This will sizably increase the number of transponders for the various DTH operators. We are also planning for 2006-07. We will be adding another 36 Ku-band transponders - and they will all be launched from India. So once we have made the satellites ready, we don't have to wait for the launch vehicles.

That is what has actually delayed Insat-4A's launch and made Tata Sky LTD wait before it can start its services, right?

We have reserved Insat-4A, which has 12 Ku-band transponders, for Tata Sky. The satellite has been ready since May, but we are waiting for Arianespace to launch it. We have now got intimation about a November launch. We are trying to push for October as our customers are waiting.

How long will Kalanithi Maran's Sun Direct have to wait?

Sun will be on Insat-4C. The satellite will have 12 Ku-band transponders and be launched in February 2006. But since it will be launched locally at Sriharikota and no co-passengers are required, we don't expect a delay. All the resources are within our control.

And what about Reliance?

Reliance is starting with six transponders and is planning to ramp up in phases over a period. The company has indicated mid-2006. If we have capacity available on Insat at that time, we will give it to them. Otherwise, we will lease capacity on other satellites temporarily and give it to them as an interim measure.

But when can you give capacity on Insat?

It depends. A lot of people have applied and have their ramp up plans. On Insat-4B, for instance, the space is reserved for DD Direct Plus which wants to have six Ku-band transponders. The satellite will be ready for shipment by May and we will then have to wait for Arianespace to launch it. DD is currently on NSS-6. All this, however, is flexible. If a DTH operator is not ready to launch, we will allot it to somebody who wants it at that time. It is a dynamic allocation system that we are adopting.

'In the ramp up plan of T-Sky, Reliance, Sun and DD, there will be a need for 51 Ku-band transponders. Right now capacity is a limitation'

Does Subhash Chandra's Dish TV not figure in the Insat list?

In the present allocation system, Dish TV has not indicated to us their firm requirement. But in case they want, we have plans also to accommodate them in 2007.

What if Chandra sets up Agrani satellite and decides to operate DTH through it?

I can't comment on his plans. But the company already has a license to operate Indian satellite systems. It is just the question of finding an orbital slot and getting a satellite. But it has to be an Indian and not a foreign co-ordinated orbital slot.

Has the company approached ISRO?

We received a request for the possibility of making a small satellite for them. We have given them the quotation. But we haven't heard back. The proposal is still with them. The option is available. If they want to get us to do it, we will get it done for them.

Has BPCL, which is planning to offer DTH service, applied for more transponders?

BPCL has not asked for more capacity. We do not know if it will be using its existing space. But they have a wide VSAT network and there is spare capacity which it could use for DTH.

Is Isro equipped to meet the ramp up plans of the DTH operators?

In the ramp up plan of T-Sky, Reliance, Sun and DD, there will be a need for 51 Ku-band transponders. Right now capacity is a limitation. Nobody expected DTH to burst out so soon and with so many entrants. We will be having 72 Ku-band transponders. There are non DTH customers as well. But we can't go beyond 80 transponders because of spectrum limitations.

How big is the demand for Ku-band transponders from non DTH operators?

Ku-band VSATs are picking up very fast. There are 20,000 Ku-band VSATs already up in India. Telecom operators like Bharati and BSNL have also taken transponders. Then there are customers like Indian Oil and BPCL. News channels also need Ku-band transponders for digital satellite news gathering (DSNG).

Is there a slump in demand for C-band capacity?

In C-band capacity, there will be one preferred slot at 83 degree east longitude. Besides Insat-2E, Insat-4A is also coming up with 12 C-band transponders in that slot. That is very much in demand. Cable operators can show over 100 channels,mostly free-to-air (FTA), in this locality. There is not much of demand in any other location. But we have sold out, keeping some orbital spare at that location. In 4B, we will have another 12 transponders.

Do you have a problem in 4B?

Not really. We have non-TV customers to address.
So going ahead, you would rather create Ku-band capacity?

We are going to concentrate immediately on the Ku-band shortage in the country.
Won't this be taking too much of a risk? Compression technology can lead to more channels be packaged in a single Ku-band transponder. What if MPEG-4 catches on?

We won't be surprised if the collapse takes place as fast as the demand has come up. Satellite is a risky business and we have to anticipate the changes. We know once MPEG-4 technology comes, suddenly the requirement for Ku-band will collapse. Like it has done for C-band capacity which is not growing because everything is digitised. We have kept these things in the background and planned for the future. The set up is dynamic. Our ramp up plan has taken these things into consideration. At any time, we can take a mid-course correction.

What are the other technological changes which you feel will impact the industry?

In the next five years, we expect KA-band to become popular. This will affect the demand for Ku-band. We are launching the first experimental KA-band in GSAT-4 which will go up in 2006. We just want to get a handle on the technical aspect of it. Once we are successful, we will wait for the pressure from the ground system to come up. But prices will have to fall before this catches on.

By an arrangement with Thaicom, VSNL is able to provide an end-to-solution solution to broadcasters. Does ISRO have any such plans?

We are starting in Insat-4A an arrangement with teleport operators to facilitate transmission on multiple channels per carrier (MCPC) mode. Teleport operators will be able to provide an end-to-end solution and the cost for the space segment can fall for broadcasters by about 25 per cent. We have collaborated with Essel Shyam and Noida Software Technology Park LTD (NSTPL) and allocated them a transponder each on Insat- 4A. They can put together a bunch of channels for uplinking from their teleport facilities while offering these broadcasters space on the satellite. Under the MCPC platform, 12 channels can be packaged on a single transponder, instead of eight under a single channel per carrier system. We want to take Thaicom head on.

'We won't be surprised if the collapse takes place as fast as the demand has come up. Satellite is a risky business and the changes have to be anticipated'

How does the MCPC work in reducing costs?

Normally a transponder will take 4.5 mb for a single channel per carrier. But under MCPC mode, you can pack in more channels. While some channels require more bandwidth, others need less. Teleport operators can allocate the power accordingly. The intelligence is built in for strategic multiplexing.

Is ISRO foraying into other markets with different products?

We are planning to enter into a niche market segment with small satellites having six-capacity Ku-band transponders. This is aimed specifically at the developing countries. In many countries like Malaysia and Thailand, there is a demand for such satellites. A part of the capacity augmentation will be through launch of such small transponder satellites. The satellites will be launched from India. We will be able to tap customers who have need for limited capacity.
Is ISRO tapping foreign satellites for launching in India?

Foreign satellites are willing to come here to launch. Agile, a satellite from Italy, is interested. Similarly, some Russian satellites have expressed their interest. Our Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) is very popular for low orbit and medium weight satellites. We are well placed in this niche market segment.

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