Satellite Communications: New Frontiers in Sino-Nepal Relations

Bhaskar Koirala August 09, 2012http://niiss.org.np/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=20

A number of different countries have in recent years sought the assistance of China to procure and launch their own communication satellites, reflecting a large commission for China to send dozens of foreign satellites into space.

 

 In 2007, China launched a communication satellite for Nigeria, the NIGCOMSAT-1, the first time a foreign buyer purchased a Chinese satellite and launching services.

The following year a communication satellite was launched by China for Venezuela at a cost of $241-million, while in 2009 an agreement was forged between the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology and Laos to manufacture and launch a communication satellite dubbed the Laos-1.  In August of this year, China launched Pakistan’s first communication satellite, the PAKSAT-1R, while in July, the China Great Wall Industry Corporation (GWIC) signed a $294-million deal with Bolivia for the building and launching of a satellite.

In fact, such cooperation in satellite systems between China and other countries commenced as early as 1984 with the China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite program (CBERS), whose purpose “is to generate images of the Earth surface that are used for applications in diverse sectors like agriculture, environment, hydrological and ocean resources, forestry and geology “, in short, to install a Remote Sensing System with multiple benefits.  

The question arises as to what logic there is for Nepal to initiate a dialogue with China to plan for a future scenario wherein Nepal may be able to deploy its own communication satellite with Chinese assistance. The question is more readily comprehended by trying to understand the reasons why so many countries in recent years have sought to launch their own satellites and moreover why they have cooperated with China to do so.

The misnomer that it is a luxury or a distant prospect for a developing country to possess its own satellite has already been exposed. For Nepal to actively plan to deploy its own satellite in the not too distant future is therefore an idea that should not be dismissed so readily. It must be recalled that more than two years ago Nepal’s South Asian compatriot, Bangladesh, announced plans to launch its own communications satellite.  The then Post and Telecommunication Minister Raziuddin Ahmed Raju, speaking about the $150 million program, stated that “we have already started talking to different countries including the US, Japan and China, to help us launch our own satellite.”

Bangladesh is a country very similar to Nepal and beset by a range of development challenges and grinding poverty faced by a large number of its people. Similarly placed alongside Nepal in terms of socio-economic indicators, Bangladesh’s plans to launch its own communication satellite are very sensible and should be instructive to Nepal.

The satellite is expected to make available smarter telecom services wherein local telecom operators could subscribe to Bangladeshi satellite services and thereby help to improve Bangladesh’s balance of payments. Bangladesh’s own satellite would render more efficient television and radio broadcasting, real-time meteorological data would be at hand to predict weather to assist farmers, mineral resources could be surveyed strategically, and uninterrupted communication would be established such that in the event of fiber optic cables being snapped, services remain undisturbed on account of satellite VSAT.

Why did Nigeria seek Chinese assistance to manufacture and launch its own NIGCOMSAT-1 communication satellite? There were many varied reasons but the economic aspect of the story deserves attention.  Satellites are no doubt expensive but consider the ways in which a country can save over a stretch of time by having its own equipment. Nigerian experts had estimated that the NIGCOMSAT-1 would help “users save more than $900 million spent for telephony trunking and data transport services, $600 million in phone call charges and broadband access which is more than $95 million spent each year.”

A Nigerian official responsible for the NIGCOMSAT-1, Ahmed Rufai, had disclosed that Nigeria will earn about $1.05 billion yearly from the satellite, “a major part of the earnings coming in from the sale and leasing of transponders from NIGCOMSAT-1.” Transponders--or that part of the communication satellite that are “for sale”--are one of the key components of satellites because they receive, cross-examine, amplify and retransmit back to earth signals arriving to the satellite.

Last year it was reported that, in the context of the government of Nepal issuing licenses to six firms to operate direct to home (DTH) satellite television, only three operators at most would be able to operate the service as there weren’t enough satellite transponders having a footprint in Nepal and that most of the usable transponders had already been leased by Indian companies and therefore Nepali DTH operators would not be able to obtain sufficient frequency bandwidth until 2012.

Considering the fact that leasing a satellite transponder costs over Rs. 250 million annually and that currently demand appears to outstrips supply (even just in the satellite television sector), the case can be made that Nepal stands to gain substantially if it possesses its own satellite, one important reason being that doing so would presumably stem the outflow of precious foreign currency otherwise required to pay for satellite transponder time. There are many other serious justifications for Nepal to seek the deployment of its own satellite and these can be further extrapolated by understanding why other countries have cooperated with China in satellite technology.

Explaining the reasons why Pakistan sought assistance from China for the manufacturing and launching of the PAKSAT-1R communication satellite, Pakistan’s Ambassador to the PRC, Masood Khan, stated that “Pakistan felt the need for such a satellite when it was hit by massive floods last year which caused large scale devastation across the country.” The Pakistani satellite is expected to be used for crop monitoring, weather forecasting, urban planning, disaster prevention and management, earth observation and oceanography. Naturally, the Pakistani satellite is expected to “refine and enhance the country’s capabilities for the use of broadband Internet, digital broadcasting, and mobile telephony.”   

The benefits accruing to a country in possession of its own satellite are extensive indeed, but finally the question as to why Nepal should seek to initiate a discussion with China with respect to satellite technology must be highlighted. Why China? For the same reasons that a European country such as Belarus or a South American state like Bolivia would, which is that “China’s role in the satellite business stretches beyond building and launching them—it also provides financial aid and supplementary training to partner countries.”

The Bolivian satellite project was made possible by a loan offered by the China Development Bank, while the executing agency, the China Great Wall Industry Corporation, “will provide additional training for Bolivian workers so they will not only be able to operate the satellite, but also learn how to build air stations.” Moreover, the Bolivian satellite project ended up costing $294 million which is relevant because as the executive general director of the Bolivian Space Agency Ivan Zambrana explained, ““If we had signed satellite contracts with developed Western countries, it would have cost at least $350 million for the whole project.”

China has maintained that it wishes to cooperate with developing countries in the peaceful use of outer space. The fact that it is facilitating the “entry” of such countries into space supports this position. Against this backdrop, the argument is made here that Nepal and China should seek to open a new frontier in their bilateral relations by actively exploring the possibility of cooperation in satellite technology.

There will some critics who argue that the majority of people in Nepal live in poverty and that satellites are made redundant by the simple fact that electricity is sporadic at best and that the government should rather spend money on the creation of power, jobs and basic public services. But perhaps a reverse logic deserves attention, namely that satellite technology can assist Nepal from many different angles in addressing precisely these concerns.hine satellite business stretches beyond building and launching them—it also provides financial aid and supplementary training to partner countries.”

 

The Bolivian satellite project was made possible by a loan offered by the China Development Bank, while the executing agency, the China Great Wall Industry Corporation, “will provide additional training for Bolivian workers so they will not only be able to operate the satellite, but also learn how to build air stations.” Moreover, the Bolivian satellite project ended up costing $294 million which is relevant because as the executive general director of the Bolivian Space Agency Ivan Zambrana explained, ““If we had signed satellite contracts with developed Western countries, it would have cost at least $350 million for the whole project.”

China has maintained that it wishes to cooperate with developing countries in the peaceful use of outer space. The fact that it is facilitating the “entry” of such countries into space supports this position. Against this backdrop, the argument is made here that Nepal and China should seek to open a new frontier in their bilateral relations by actively exploring the possibility of cooperation in satellite technology.

There will some critics who argue that the majority of people in Nepal live in poverty and that satellites are made redundant by the simple fact that electricity is sporadic at best and that the government should rather spend money on the creation of power, jobs and basic public services. But perhaps a reverse logic deserves attention, namely that satellite technology can assist Nepal from many different angles in addressing precisely these concerns.

 


 

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