Your next vacation may well be quite different as the government has decided to let you use your phone for calls and messaging while you are in the skies. In all likelihood, within the next three to four months, service providers and aviation companies will make calling possible while flying, officials said on Tuesday.
Typically, on any flight a passenger will be able to buy data packs for use during a journey. According to Telecom Secretary Aruna Sundararajan, service providers can provide internet as well as voice service on domestic and international flights over the Indian airspace.
The decision to approve in-flight connectivity in Indian airspace was taken at a meeting of the Telecom Commission, the highest decision-making body of the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), Tuesday morning. Within hours, the aviation industry was much in demand for a possible tariff structure. That will take time, it is learnt. But, Civil Aviation Secretary Rajiv Nayan Choubey said by the end of May, the civil aviation and telecom ministries would finalise the rules and call for licence from in-flight WiFi players. This will be a separate licence category.
“We will invite for licence from interested operators by end of this month,” he said.
Anand Chari, chief technology officer at Gogo, had earlier said that it was in talks with major telecom service providers like Airtel, Vodafone, Reliance Jio for forging a partnership. According to Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) recommendations, a service provider whether Indian or foreign should partner an entity which is authorised to provide internet and telecom connectivity in India.
In-flight connectivity is allowed in many countries and regions, including the European Union, the US, and Australia, with over 30 airlines offering the service. It was not permitted in the Indian airspace.
The Trai in January had given its recommendations on in-flight connectivity. Sundararajan said Trai’s views had been accepted, with the rider that the satellites to be used for providing service should be approved by the Department of Space and the gateway should be in India.
Trai had recommended allowing foreign satellite firms in facilitating in-flight mobile communication service. The decision would be operationalised immediately and the Cabinet’s nod is not required.
However, not everybody is enthusiastic about the decision. Indian low-cost carriers, which dominate the domestic market, were cold to the concept of in-flight WiFi, citing high installation charge, the cost of which may not be recoverable on a two-and-a-half-hour travel.
“The in-flight connectivity business is a difficult case to make for domestic airline operations. The aircraft are smaller, there are fewer passengers, and the flying time is not that long,” said an executive of a low-cost airline.
Full-service carriers, however, said they, based on passenger feedback, will consider providing WiFi.
“The approval has just come; we will review it and take decision. Our wide-body aircraft like Boeing 777 and 787 can be retrofitted with equipment. On-board connectivity is not only a source of ancillary revenue for airlines, but increases its value in the mind of flyers on long-haul routes,” an Air India executive said.
For providing internet connectivity an aircraft requires a retrofit, and an antenna is mounted on the fuselage. Apart from fixed costs, there are costs related to subscription of bandwidth or entertainment subscription and these factors determine the charges airlines levy on passengers.
“More and more corporate flyers see on board WiFi as a necessary amenity and are demanding it, this might be a necessary business cost, the cost will vary with routes, the type of aircraft, etc,” said an executive of a private full-service carrier.
He said it might start with a free basic packs and later move to paid data packs. The free basic pack will allow receiving and sending emails and checking WhatsApp.
For instance, Dubai-based Emirates provides 20 megabytes (MB) free data for the first two hours after logging in. Besides that, data packs are charged at $9.99 for 150 MB and $15.99 for 500 MB.
A 2016 survey by Inmarsat found that 83 per cent of passengers would prefer flying with an airline offering in-flight connectivity. Bharti Airtel, the country’s largest mobile operator, has joined the Seamless Alliance, which aims to leverage satellite technology to offer high-speed data connectivity to mobile users even when they are up in the air.
OneWeb, Airbus, Delta, and Sprint are the other founding members of the alliance.
The DoT will create a separate category of licences for in-flight service providers, which will pay an annual licence fee of Rs 1 initially.
The in-flight providers need to partner telecom operators and register with the DoT.
The service provider and the aircraft have to work out the pricing. Each aircraft can choose a service provider and can have an international agreement.
“We have to frame the licence and invite applications, and once they (in-flight service providers) apply they will have to tie up their backend agreements with the telecom operators and satellite providers. It is a thing which everybody wanted to do, so we will try to expedite it,” the telecom secretary said.