Bangladesh — A new Asian entrant in space exploration | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 16.05.2018
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Bangladesh

Bangladesh — A new Asian entrant in space exploration

Bangladesh recently launched its first satellite, marking the nation's entry into an elite space club. While the satellite filled many Bangladeshis with joy and patriotism, some question its commercial viability.

Bangladesh became a member of the exclusive club of satellite-owning countries by successfully launching its first communication satellite last week. A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted the communication satellite, Bangabandhu-1, named after the founding father of the Bangladeshi nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.        

Rahman is popularly known as "Bangabandhu," meaning "friend of Bengal."

Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina hailed the achievement, saying: "With the launch of the Bangabandhu-1 satellite, we are hoisting our national flag in space." With the launch, Bangladesh became the 57th nation in the world and fourth in South Asia — after India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka — to own a satellite.

The satellite carries a total of 40 Ku-band and C-band transponders with a capacity of 1,600 megahertz and a projected lifespan exceeding 15 years. It cost the impoverished country a hefty sum — over $300 million (€253.5 million) — prompting some to question the rationale behind the government's decision to pour money into such an expensive project.

There has been widespread speculation in the country regarding the satellite's use, with many people believing that it can be used for imagery and weather forecasting purposes.

Sheikh Hasina (Reuters)

'With the launch of the Bangabandhu-1 satellite, we are hoisting our national flag in space,' said Hasina

Experts, however, say Bangabandhu-1 does not have any observation capability. "It can only communicate. It can be used for broadcasting, telecommunications and data communications purposes," Javed Ikbal, a Bangladeshi communication and cybersecurity expert based in the US, told DW.

Commercial viability

Bangladesh's government says it hopes to earn revenue from the satellite by renting out its transponders and providing other communication services. Potential customers include the country's 28 private television channels and future DTH (direct to home) service providers as well as foreign countries coming under the satellite's coverage, including most South and Central Asian nations. 

"The government is planning to allocate half of the 40 transponders to local TV stations, and the rest will be deployed to service the channels from other countries," said Zunaid Ahmed Palak, the country's state minister for information and communication technology. 

Still, experts doubt the commercial viability of the project.  

They argue that Bangladeshi private television channels fear it would be challenging to provide services using most of the satellite's transponders given their weak signals. Mozammel Babu, managing director of Ekattor TV, a private television channel, is of the view that most of the transponders will be of little use for his channel due to this problem. 

Shykh Seraj, director of Channel I, another Bangladeshi private television channel with a huge audience in the Middle East, said that his channel would only be interested in using the satellite if it serves their purpose. "So far, nobody has contacted us to discuss the possibility of using the satellite, and we don't know how far it could serve our needs," he told DW. 

The satellite is placed at 119.1 degrees east longitude orbital slot, while Bangladesh is at 90 degrees east longitude, and this difference plays a significant role in weakening the signals, experts point out.

Sumon Ahmed Sabir, a well-known information and communication technology (ICT) expert based in Dhaka, said another issue with the satellite was that it doesn't cover the Middle East region, a lucrative market for Bangladeshi private TV networks. 

Furthermore, some experts caution about the problem of rain fade. But Khalilur Rahman, an associate professor of computer science and engineering at BRAC University, remains optimistic. "I believe Bangabandhu-1 was designed taking into account the rain fade problem since it was developed using the most recent technology. There was ITU recommendation as well for addressing the issue," he told DW. 

This view is shared by communications expert Javed Ikbal. "Rain fade problem refers to raindrops absorbing some of the energy of the satellite signal," he explained, adding that the amount of rain fade depends on how heavy the rain is and the frequency of the signal being used. "The signal degradation can be compensated by increasing the signal strength."

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Bangladeshi pride 

Both Rahman and Ikbal said that despite their skepticism regarding the satellite's commercial viability, the project has earned prestige for the country, which often grabs global attention with its problems like poverty, industrial accidents, overpopulation and natural disasters.    

Ikbal pointed out the project has also raised Bangladeshi children's interest in science and space technology. "Kids are asking questions about rockets and trying to understand the physics of space flight. It's intangible, we will not be able to measure this in takas or dollars until this generation grows up," he said. "I predict this will result in a renewed interest in science in Bangladesh and the net benefit of that will be greater than the cost of the satellite."

For Rahman, the satellite is a matter of pride for his nation. He doesn't see it as a product to make a profit, but rather as a possibility for the Muslim-majority country to become part of space research.  

"Our next generation will become more passionate about science, they will feel confident to work on such cutting-edge technology. A country like Bangladesh should have at least a communication satellite and a few earth observatory satellites. I don't care whether it is commercially viable or not." 

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