Television enthusiasts in India are eagerly waiting to see which DTH provider will benefit from the recent launch of two powerful satellites by the Indian Space Research Organization or ISRO.
The two satellites — called GSAT-30 and GSAT-31 — have been launched over the last 12 months.
Originally, GSAT-30 was supposed to be placed in space over 83 degree east longitude — the location of Tata Sky’s current satellite broadcasting operation.
GSAT-30 was supposed to reach that spot before Tata Sky’s main satellite, INSAT 4A, died.
INSAT 4A was launched in 2005, and was supposed to be in service for 12 years, or till 2017. ISRO was supposed to send in the replacement, GSAT-30, before the satellite expired.
GSAT-30 would be equipped with both DTH transponders (Ku band) as well as regular satellite TV transponders (C band) and would take over both sets of traffic from INSAT 4A.
The DTH signals of Tata Sky would be moved to the Ku band transponders, while the regular satellite channels of INSAT 4A would be moved to the C band transponders.
However, ISRO was able to ink the deal to send in the replacement — GSAT-30 — only in September 2018, and finally manged to send the satellite into space only in January this year (2019). This turned out to be too late.
The ageing INSAT-4A started facing problems from August of 2018, and by September, it was clear that the satellite was about to die and could no longer be relied on.
This called for some emergency measures, and ISRO took the extraordinary measure of moving two satellites tens of thousands of kilometers to ensure continuity of operations at 83 degrees.
First, it moved INSAT-4B, which was stationed 20,600 km away at 111 degree east longitude, to 83 degrees using the satellite’s in-built propulsion system.
But INSAT-4B could only take care of the C band channels of the dying satellite, as 4B does not come with Ku band transponders required for DTH transmission.
So ISRO moved a second satellite, the recently launched GSAT-31 located 25,750 km away at 47 degree east.
This satellite had been launched in February of 2019, and was not being used for DTH use at its 47-degree location.
This was because no DTH provider has its customers’ dish antennas pointed in the 47-degree direction, and it is not possible to re-orient all the dish antennas to a new location just because a satellite has become available.
Therefore, the Ku band transponders of the new satellite (GSAT 31) were being targeted at applications like connecting OB vans and other point-to-point communications.
However, with Tata Sky’s satellite failing, ISRO decided to make this satellite, GSAT-31, travel nearly 26,000 km in space to reach the 83 degree spot and stand alongside INSAT-4B and take over the DTH traffic duties from INSAT 4A.
By September, the two replacement satellites — INSAT 4B for C band and GSAT 31 for Ku band — had stepped into the shoes of the failing INSAT 4A, which was then moved to graveyard orbit in October.
Even as all this was going on, ISRO’s scientists were putting the finishing touches on GSAT 30 — the original replacement for INSAT 4A.
Like the 4A that it replaced, GSAT 30 had both C band and Ku band transponders, and could handle both the regular as well as the DTH workload of the satellite was meant to replace.
GSAT 30 was finally launched into orbit in January this year, and by all reports, it has now reached close to its destination of 83 degree east longitude, and is readying to take up its duties as the replacement of INSAT 4A.
This means that the two temporary stand-in satellites — GSAT 31 (Ku band) and INSAT 4B (C band) are now free to go back to their original positions.
However, ISRO has remained mum about what it plans to do with these two satellites that are now superfluous.
It is all the more intriguing since GSAT 30 cannot be used by any existing DTH provider if it goes back to its original location at 47 degrees longitude.
On the other hand, there is a location where it can indeed be put to good use. Close to its current location is another is slot where DTH providers are hungry for some extra capacity — 93.5 degrees east.
93.5 degrees east is where three DTH operators — DD Free Dish, Dish TV and Sun Direct — are transmitting their signals from. Nearly 60 million (6 crore) DTH dishes in India are already pointed to this direction.
What’s more, all three DTH providers have been known to be eager to buy extra transponder capacity in this location.
Dish TV, for example, can add more HD channels if it gets extra capacity here.
The operator currently has around 66 HD channels on its North India beam that is served from this location. This is less than Tata Sky (91 HD channels), Airtel Digital (86) and even a Sun Direct (75).
This has hurt its ability to attract and retain premium customers. For example, Tata Sky has around 30 English language HD channels (excluding sports), while Dish’s tally is a little more than half of that.
Sun Direct too can do with more channels. The operator, which has only 13 transponders in total, offers around 350 channels in total, compared to about 500-600 by its competitors.
The third player, DD Free Dish, too can add extra channels to its current tally of around 110 or so.
However, it remains to be seen if ISRO moves GSAT 31 to 93.5 degrees, maintains it at 83 degrees, or moves it back to 47 degrees.
If it maintains it at 83 degrees, it would mean a bonanza for Tata Sky users.
Tata Sky already has, by far, the largest amount of DTH transponder capacity in India.
The operator currently has a whopping 24 transponders at its location in 83 degrees east. If GSAT 30 is also retained at the same location, Tata Sky can potentially have access to 36 Ku band transponders, which can increase its capacity by 50%.
This could enable the DTH operator to become the first 4K platform in India, while doubling its HD channel count to nearly 200.
A single transponder can deliver up 16-18 HD channels (using HEVC technology) and 30-35 channels using MPEG4 technology.