Some things that start with a loud bang end with the softest whimper. A current example is Sri Lanka's plans to launch its own satellites.
In an interview with Business Times last Sunday (6 June 2010) on a range of issues, the head of the Telecom Regulatory Commission (TRC) disclosed that the government is not going ahead with the much-hyped project as originally announced last year. Anusha Pelpita, the TRC's Director General, was quoted as saying: "To set up the satellite, there's a cost of US$ 20 million. After sending it in orbit, it is US$ 160 to US$ 180 million per annum, which is not feasible."
According to him, the TRC will not proceed with Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL), the British firm commissioned to help Sri Lanka to get ready for building and operating its own satellites. The report added that the TRC was not averse to launching a satellite, but the regulator was 'exploring other options such as hiring satellites'.
This is the first time in over 15 months since the project was made public, that the high costs have been fully acknowledged. Mr Pelpita deserves credit for being candid and cautious - attributes his agency has not displayed so far in its pursuit of this high-cost, high-tech project. Let's hope that he will also open up the issue for informed public discussion which has been sadly lacking until now.
The project was first announced in February 2009 and appeared to gain momentum during the year. Going by official statements and media reports, the plan was to launch not one but two satellites.
The first, to be launched to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO), was an imaging satellite to keep a dedicated eye on our island and the seas around. It was to help us in both good times (economic activity) and bad (disasters).
The LEO satellite was to be named after the late Sir Arthur C Clarke, the visionary writer who first to propose the idea of communications satellites (comsats) back in 1945. The geostationary orbit he calculated for such satellites - invaluable for today's broadcast and telecom services - lies 36,000 km above the Earth, far higher than the LEO. (The multibillion dollar comsat industry fondly calls it the 'Clarke Orbit'. In 2000 Eutelsat, Europe's leading satellite operator, named one of its comsats in Sir Arthur's honour.)
Sir Arthur, with whom I worked for 21 years, had his own nickname for LEO: the Anti-Clarke Orbit! Indeed, it seemed a bit incongruous to name a LEO satellite after him. (Despite his well known ego, Sir Arthur never sought personal edifices in his memory. When a journalist once asked him about monuments, he said: "Go to any well-stocked library, and look around…")
But the TRC decided, without asking the Clarke family or Estate, that the LEO shall be named after Arthur Clarke. The regulator had its eyes set on the Clarke Orbit too: the second satellite was to be launched there a couple of years later, to be used for 'broadcasting, communications and high speed Internet' according to the TRC. The cost? An estimated US$ 100 million (over Rs. 1.2 billion).
Such a high price tag never seemed to dampen the enthusiasm of the project's chief promoter, former TRC chief Priyantha Kariyapperuma. In fact, he saw potential savings in the very project that his successor now sees little or none.
He argued that these satellites would 'bring about a huge foreign exchange saving' as Sri Lanka was currently dependent on satellites of other countries for broadcasting, telecommunications and 'even defence-related information' (Sunday Times, 1 Feb 2009). No figures were given for these current costs. Meanwhile, Mr Kariyapperuma envisaged more ambitious uses for the LEO satellite. According to the same news report, he said: "Our Exclusive Economic Zone will probably expand this year from 200 nautical miles to about 800 nautical miles. The most efficient and cost effective way to monitor such a large expanse of ocean will be to use the LEO satellite."
Curiously enough, the satellite project was being pursued by the telecom regulator despite there being other state agencies mandated to promote various space technologies. These include the Survey Department and Meteorological Department, which have been using internationally or regionally sourced satellite imagery and data for decades.
Since that first announcement, the then TRC chief made various statements to the media at regular intervals. We heard, for example, that Sri Lanka was to set up its own space agency for which a new law was being drawn up. Probably as an initial step, the TRC signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) in November 2009 with SSTL of UK - this is what the incumbent TRC chief now wants to call off.
Age of spin
For sure, the TRC is not the only state agency that over-promises and under-delivers. Ego-massaging is only to be expected in our media-saturated society, but when spin replaces public discussion and debate on national decisions and investments, it becomes a serious concern.
Meaningful debate can only happen with specific information. We could find no detailed plans or a cost-benefit analysis from the TRC about this mega project. If these existed, they were not in the public domain.
In this info-vacuum, we could only ask broad questions. As Dr Rohan Samarajiva, former telecom regulator now heading the ICT policy research organization LIRNEasia, urged: "Before large amounts of taxpayer money are committed to this project, it would be good to have a broad debate on the pros and cons. I have not been able to identify any pros, but that was not for the lack of trying."
In his regular column for a local news agency, he asked (referring to the planned geostationary satellite): "One wonders whether a Rs 11.5 billion satellite is the highest priority for this little island which seems to be doing pretty well in terms of TV, radio and telecommunications. Satellites are usually required by large continental or archipelagic countries like India and Indonesia."
The public-funded regulator didn't respond to these questions from the concerned public. Disappointingly, too, very few others joined the debate. Where are all our public intellectuals hiding?
We can only guess why the TRC suddenly had a change of mind about the satellite. Maybe the spin doctors will soon explain it away. But now that they have paused, let's hope good sense will prevail. That includes full disclosure of plans and proper discussion on its cost-benefits and viability.
Haste makes waste, both on the Earth and up in the heavens.
(Science writer and space enthusiast Nalaka Gunawardene worked with Sir Arthur Clarke as his research associate for two decades. The views on this essay are entirely his own).