Glitch forces ISRO to shut educational channel, students suffer

Thursday, February 24, 2011

BANGALORE/THIRUVANANTHAPURAM - Indian space agency ISRO has suspended the telecast of popular educational programmes in many states due to an unidentified glitch in its ground equipment, says a senior official. As a result, millions of students have been affected.

“This is the first time we have been asked to suspend conducting virtual classroom teaching for over three weeks since Feb 3, affecting about six million students in 12,000 schools across the state,” a top Kerala education department official told IANS.

In a note Feb 12, a copy of which is with IANS, state-run Indian Space Research Organisation directed the Kerala education department to keep the hub used to telecast its 17-hour educational classes in switch off mode due to ‘inference issues’ in channel 12 of Insat-4CR communication satellite till Friday.

Other states where telecasting of state-funded educational programmes is severely affected include Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Assam and Jammu and Kashmir.

The space agency shifted beaming the educational programmes in November last year to Insat-4CR from its dedicated satellite (Edusat) after its mission life ended prematurely. Meant for distant classroom education from school to college levels, Edusat was launched in September 2004.

“Due to malfunctioning of the ground equipment, we are not able to relay the signals from the transponder to telecast the programmes,” a senior scientist associated with the satellite communication and navigation programmes (SCNP) said.

“We are trying to locate the problem and fix it in the next three-four days so that we can resume the channel,” the scientist added but declined to be identified as he was not authorised to speak to the media.

The glitch has, however, not affected the operations of other users of Insat-4CR that was launched in September 2007.

Other users of the satellite include the country’s largest telecom player Airtel, Utkarsh channel, Orissa Space Application Centre and Bhaskaracharya Institute for Space Applications and Geo-Informatics though their programmes are beamed through different transponders.

In addition to the Virtual Classroom Technology on Edusat for Rural Schools (ViCTERS) of the Kerala education department, Visvesvaraya Technology University (VTU) and Vidya Vahini in Karnataka too are users of the satellite for educational programmes.

“This is the second time in 10 days we have been directed to keep the hub switched off for two weeks more. We are not sure if we will be able to resume the programmes after Friday, as there is no further directive from ISRO yet,” Anwar Sadath, Kerala IT @ School Project executive director, said.

Launched by former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam in 2006, ViCTERS is Kerala’s Rs.120-crore IT School Project to provide high speed net connectivity to schools and implement learning management solutions.

Veteran journalist Anand Parthasarathy, who anchors a weekly programme “IT For All” on the channel in Kerala, countered the official claim and wondered how ISRO was adhering to quality of service (QoS) conditions by providing its channels to commercial users from the same satellite, assuring an uptime of 99.9 percent.

“I find it outrageous that a state-run organisation, which meets its obligations to its paying customers, can with impunity cut off for weeks a vital educational umbilical that assures distance education for millions of students,” Parthasarathy asserted.

As ISRO is under cloud over the now annulled controversial deal for allotting scarce S-band spectrum to a private firm (Devas) without bids, its officials and scientists are wary of admitting that shortage of transponders and other priorities are forcing them to shuffle the usage pattern of its channels to users.

With the loss of about 50 transponders due to twin launch failures and operational glitches in Insat-4B during the last 12 months, ISRO’s commercial arm Antrix Corporation has been forced to lease a whopping 70 transponders from foreign satellites such as Intelsat and Measat of Malaysia to meet the demand for space-based services from private and state-run agencies.

According to a source associated with the programmes, ISRO is forced to allot the satellite channel meant for Edusat programmes to its commercial end-users, including television channels, radio broadcasters and private/public institutions as part of its service commitments and contractual obligations.

“Due to non-availability of the terrestrial channel, we are suffering a lot, as preparation for the board exams from next month is affected. We conduct revision classes to students appearing in the final exams through the channel, which is also aired by thousands of cable operators as part of the package,” Sadath lamented.

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