On Friday, as Bangladesh launched its first satellite into space, the government said it would earn the country both “prestige and profit”. Experts have, however, questioned the $317-million project’s commercial viability, saying it will not give the country a financial edge in the short term.

Bangabandhu-1 or BS-1 – named after the honorary title “Bangabandhu” (friend of Bengal) given to Bangladesh’s founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman – took off on an updated SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida in the United States. With its launch, Bangladesh – the world’s 44th largest economy in nominal terms – became the 57th country to have a presence in space.

With elections at the year-end, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League billed the launch the great success of its two consecutive terms in office spanning over 10 years – the last victory coming in 2014 in an election boycotted by most of the Opposition over the government’s refusal to put in place a caretaker government before the polls, as had been the practice.

“With this launching, we’ve hoisted the Bangladesh flag in the space,” Hasina said in a televised message on Saturday. She added that “Bangabandhu Satellite-1 will be a great addition to our information technology, heralding our entry into the satellite club of the world”.

The satellite programme

The 3.7-tonne Bangabandhu-1 was built in Cannes, France, by the Franco-Italian aerospace manufacturer Thales Alenia Space, which was to hand over management of the satellite to the state-owned Bangladesh Communication Satellite Company Limited after the launch.

According to the Bangladesh Communication Satellite Company, the satellite will provide Ku-band and C-band television broadcast and data relay services across Bangladesh and its surrounding regions. It has two ground stations – in Joydebpur, 40 km from Dhaka, and in Betbunia, in the remote Chittagong Hill Tracts region in the country’s south.

Bangladesh used satellites for telecommunication till 2007, when the military-backed caretaker government put a stop to it fearing information espionage. Since then, most of the satellite use in the country is by its 28 television channels that rent bandwidth from satellites owned by China, India and Singapore for about $14 million a year.

On the drawing board for nearly a decade, Bangladesh’s satellite programme took off after the country signed a deal with the Moscow-based Intersputnik in January 2015 to take on lease the 119.1 degrees East Longitude orbital slot. In November that year, the telecom regulator Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission signed a $248-million loan deal with the Thales Group to buy “satellite systems”.

The total project cost for Bangabandhu-1 was initially estimated at $324 million but revised to $317 million out of which $159 million would come from the British multinational bank HSBC and the rest from the government exchequer.

The government has said on numerous occasions that the project will make up the foreign currency expenditure of television networks, which will now be able to rent bandwidth from Bangabandhu-1 instead of depending on foreign satellites.

Commercial viability

Television channel owners are skeptical though. Mozammel Babu, managing director and editor-in-chief of Channel 71, said during a roundtable discussion on the “possibilities of BS-1” on April 26 that the orbital slot Bangladesh had received for the satellite would pose problems.

Bangladesh, located at 90 degrees East Longitude, had in 2013 applied to the International Telecommunication Union for a slot 102 degrees East. But nearly 20 countries, including the United States, Russia, France and Australia, had raised objections, saying their satellite communication would be disrupted if Bangladesh were given that slot.

Experts hold that the nearer a satellite’s orbital slot to the country’s location, the better the quality of the signal it receives.

Babu also said that of the satellite’s 40 transponders, or units that transfer the received signals, 26 are in the KU-band. “We cannot properly operate in this band,” he said. “With even a little rain, the frequency in this band creates so much noise that we have to shut down the operation.”

Babu told the round table discussion, chaired by Post and Telecommunication Minister Mostafa Jabbar, “We are more interested in the 14 C-Bands of the satellite.”

Signals in C-band are less focused, due to their longer wavelength, compared to higher satellite frequencies such as Ku-Band. Less focused signals are not affected as much by rain (a phenomenon known as rain fade of satellite signals).

Assuring Babu that his “concern will be addressed”, Jabbar told the gathering that Bangabandhu-1 “is not just a technical or commercial issue, it’s a matter of intense pride for our country”. He said the satellite would make the country money as 20 of its transponders would be made available on rent to other countries. The satellite’s orbital slot theoretically covers all the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation countries – Afghanistan, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in addition to Bangladesh – as well as Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkestan and a part of Kazakhstan.

“About $50 million could be earned annually from this,” Jabbar said, adding that the investment cost of the satellite will likely be retrieved in seven to eight years.

But Abu Sayeed Khan, senior policy research fellow at the think tank LIRNEasia, has doubts on this count. Pointing out that the Bangladesh Communication Satellite Company’s management is made up largely of bureaucrats who do not know much about running a technical firm, Khan said the company in charge of the satellite could become commercially viable and profitable “only if the management is run by people with proper commercial and technical knowledge”.

About using a satellite for telecommunication again, Khan – a former secretary general of the Association of Mobile Telephone Operators of Bangladesh – said, “It’s possible but I don’t think the telecom operators will rely more on satellite rather than the submarine cable which they are quite happy with because of its reliability.”

Sumon Ahmed Sabir, chief technology officer of the transmission network service provider Fiber@Home, said Bangladesh must rope in international clients with “commercially and technically” viable offers. He added, “Practically speaking, I don’t think BS-1 can compete with a big company who has strong footprints in the business.”

But there are some who are more optimistic about the project. Dr M Khalilur Rahman, a professor at the private BRAC University who has headed its nano-satellite programme, said Bangabandhu-1’s commercial viability is “yet to be measured”. But according to him, it has already “done one important thing: it has given birth to interest in space science and satellite technology”.

Rahman pointed out that few people in Bangladesh talked about transponders, ground stations or for that matter satellites as they believed all this to be “rocket science”. Even though the country has been using satellites for a decade, interest “in these issues” only surfaced with the “Bangabandhu-1 satellite project”, he said. He added, “Cashing [in] on it, one day we will be able to launch a satellite with our own technology.”

Satellite politics

Friday’s launch has also led to politics over the satellite. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the country’s main Opposition party, questioned the real “purpose and ownership” of the satellite. At a press conference on Saturday, its secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir alleged that Bangabandhu-1 “is no longer owned by the Bangladesh government.”

Alamgir claimed ownership of the satellite had already been transferred, but did not go into details. “Do you know it [Bangabandhu-1] has already been sold? It is now owned by two persons and you will have to pay them for this service,” he said.

Political analyst Zia Hassan contested the government’s claim that Bangabandhu-1 will generate income by selling free transponders to foreign operators. He said Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaysia and a number of other countries that fall under the satellite’s coverage have their own satellites and that the East Asian satellite market is already crowded. As for the government’s claim that the satellite will reduce the foreign currency expenses of television channel operators who currently have to rent bandwidth, Hassan pointed out that the channel owners have themselves rejected this contention.

“So what appears to many, that the government may be eyeing a direct-to-home market for satellite [for] which it has already selected two companies which are very close to government,” he said.

Currently, only two companies in Bangladesh, Beximco and Buyer Media Limited, hold licences to provide direct-to-home television services.

“As of now it seems these two pro-government connected companies and other future DTH will be the biggest beneficiary of this satellite project,” said Hassan. “How far that benefit will transpire to the people of Bangladesh who are elated with launching of this satellite will be something that we all look forward to see.”

Faisal Mahmud is a Dhaka-based journalist.