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Wednesday, 16 May 2012 00:38
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All ministries need to be part of spectrum allocation
The CAG report on Antrix-Devas is unique in many ways. Unlike the 2G report on which it is largely based, where the CAG estimated a loss of R1.76 lakh crore at the upper end, the report hints at the extent of losses, but doesn’t actually put a number to it; it is a report where the government cancelled the contract even before the CAG report came out; and, given this, it is a report which no one from the government will get up to attack—indeed, even before the CAG report came out, the government got two expert committees/panels to examine the issue and they appeared to have come up with similar conclusions, else the deal would not have been scrapped. The report has enough details to suggest ISRO did not comply with all the rules, though ISRO has given enough instances to say it had enough powers and did not need to keep the government in the loop—ISRO’s then chief G Madhavan Nair, for instance, says when TataSky was leased 12 transponders, the government was not informed about this.
Having set the stage by comparing the R67,719 crore earned from auctioning 20MHz of 3G spectrum (actually, since Antrix-Devas was going to provide data services, the more appropriate comparison would be R12,847 crore for 20MHz of BWA spectrum), why didn’t the CAG come out with a number—R2,37,017 crore if you use the 3G comparison and R44,965 crore if you use the BWA one—for the loss? One reason could be, as Nair has said, that ‘satellite’ spectrum cannot be re-utilised as many times as ‘terrestrial spectrum’ (former VSNL chief BK Syngal who has worked in the satellite space for two decades says while 100MHz of ‘terrestrial’ spectrum can service 900 million customers, the same amount of ‘satellite’ spectrum can service just 1-2 million users). Nair argues that if Antrix-Devas was to use this for BWA services like Qualcomm and Reliance—they have paid R12,847 crore apiece for 20MHz of spectrum—he would have shut the transponders. Given Nair’s extraordinary qualifications and awards—a Padma Vibhushan for supervising 25 successful space missions—it is difficult not to believe him, but he was never going to be heading ISRO forever.
So here’s the burning issue: GAIL, the Railways and the defence forces have spectrum allocated to them; what happens if they too decide to use it commercially? This is the CAG’s point that needs to be heeded; there has to be serious inter-ministry coordination to ensure the relevant ministries have an important say in such matters. As for the actual ‘loss’, keep in mind that when ISRO signed an MoU in 2003 and even in 2005 when the deal was signed, there probably weren’t too many takers for the spectrum anyway. If the CAG has kept the ‘loss’ open-ended despite everything, there has to be a reason for it.

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