Bangladesh has signed an agreement with a Russian company for the country's second satellite, the Bangabandhu Satellite-2, at a cost of $435 million.
The Bangladesh Satellite Company Limited (BSCL) has signed a memorandum of cooperation with the Russian space firm Glavkosmos in this regard.
But, the agreed cost is way more than what the consultant had recommended – between $273 million to $333 million.
Also, the consultant had recommended a constellation of 15 satellites at that price, but the Russian option only has five.
It was a direct contract with the Russian company with no open tender process.
When contacted, Posts and Telecommunications Minister Mustafa Jabbar said Russia had huge experience and skills in this field to complete the project.
Regarding the consultancy firm's recommendation, Mustafa Jabbar said, "PricewaterhouseCoopers [PWC] submitted their report, but we had our own observations about which option was best for us."
Meanwhile, stakeholders and experts pointed out that 60% of the existing satellite's capacity remained unused and if this was the case for the new satellite, the desired outcome of the project would not be achieved.
In its election manifesto in 2018, the Bangladesh Awami League promised to launch Bangabandhu Satellite-2 in space before the 2023 national elections.
The BSCL appointed the PWC at a cost of Tk1.57 crore to suggest what the specifications of the next satellite would be and from where it would be procured.
Low power, less reach
After a long research on the different satellite options, user needs, market trends and return on the investment, the PWC recommended developing a constellation of satellites with both optical and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) capabilities.
The SAR is a technology that is capable of high-resolution remote sensing, independent of weather, and it can select frequencies to avoid weather-caused signal attenuation, apart from having day and night imaging capability.
The PWC recommended having 15 small satellites, each equipped with an Optical VHR (very high resolutions) payload and one medium-size satellite equipped with a SAR HR.
But the Russian firm's option will have five satellites, said Shahjahan Mahmood, chairman of the BSCL.
Experts fear that the fewer number of satellites will mean that those will not provide quality oceanography images and data for flood and drought monitoring.
However, Shahjahan said there would be an option to increase or decrease the number of satellites.
But that would come at a higher cost.
Furthermore, for Bangabandhu Satellite-1, Bangladesh purchased the orbital slot from Intersputnik, a Russian space communications company, for 15 years at a cost of Tk219 crore.
According to the agreement, Russia's Intersputnik is supposed to have a satellite coordination contract with 14 countries, including Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Cameroon, South Africa, Turkey and Honduras.
But Intersputnik has coordination contracts with only six of those countries – the Philippines, Cameroon, South Africa, Turkey and Honduras.
Sources at the BSCL said due to orbital slot coordination issues, after launching the orbit in 2018, it was not possible to sell the services abroad.
Meanwhile, India and Indonesia, among others, were having trouble getting landing rights due to taking Russian orbital slots.
Asked what Bangladesh is going to do, a high official at the satellite company said they have tabled the issue and Intersputnik has assured the BSCL of ensuring coordination with other countries to create business links for Bangladesh's first satellite.
Revenue, fears of delay
Experts say Bangladesh needs the first satellite to generate revenue before investing Tk3,000-4,000 crore on a new satellite.
"Before launching the satellite, we need to take the required preparations to ensure its complete usage," said Sumon Ahmed Sabir, an ICT and telecommunication expert.
Otherwise, Bangladesh will again suffer in selling the service abroad, he said.
BSCL Chairman Shahjahan Mahmood, however, expressed optimism about selling the service to foreign countries, along with ensuring domestic usage.
"The main purpose is to sell the additional capacity to other countries after our own usage. And we would be able to do that," he added.
Meanwhile, stakeholders doubt Russians will be able meet the 2023 deadline.
It will take them 3-5 years as they import satellite chips from US manufacturers and the USA has warned its manufacturers to prepare for an upcoming sanction to Russia.
In this regard, Mustafa Jabbar said, "Even if we are not able to launch the satellite by 2023, there will be a progress of 70-90%. But we have spun the wheel. Now the challenge is fund management and technical issues."