The Telecom Commission Tuesday allowed in-flight connectivity of Internet and mobile communications on aircraft in Indian airspace. Once all legislative modalities are in place over the next 3-4 months, telecom operators, airlines, and other technological partners will be able to tie up to roll out these services.
What is the technology by which Internet will be provided on flights?
In-flight connectivity systems primarily use two kinds of technologies. In the first, an onboard antenna picks up signals from the nearest tower on the ground, just like, say, a moving car. Unless the aircraft passes over a big water body with no towers, the connection will remain seamless up to a certain altitude.
Otherwise, satellites can be used to connect to ground stations, similar to the way satellite TV signals are transmitted. An issue with deploying satellites for on-board connectivity of Internet and mobile communications, however, is that the Telecom Commission is not amenable to allowing the use of foreign satellites — as demanded by some airlines in their consultations with the telecom regulator TRAI — unless they are leased by the Department of Space, making them a part of the Indian Satellite System, or INSAT.
The data is transmitted to a personal electronic device through an onboard router, which connects to the plane’s antenna. The antenna transmits the signals, through satellites, to a ground station, which redirects the traffic to a billing server that calculates the data consumption. It is then relayed to the intercepting servers, and to the World Wide Web.
Trai wants Internet services through onboard WiFi to be made available when electronic devices are permitted to be used, only in flight/airplane mode. Once flight mode is activated, the plane’s antenna will link to terrestrial Internet services provided by telecom service providers; when the aircraft has climbed to 3,000 m, normally 4-5 minutes after take-off, the antenna will switch to satellite-based services. This way, there will be no discontinuity in Internet services to passengers, and cross-interference between terrestrial and satellite networks will be avoided.
What will in-flight Internet cost airlines?
They will have to bear the initial cost of installing antennae on aircraft. Some airlines have said it would be easier for them to have the equipment installed on their new aircraft rather than taking planes out of service for retrofitting. Depending on airlines’ commercial decisions, the additional cost could find a way into ticket prices, which are already under pressure from rising fuel prices. Globally, some airlines offering onboard WiFi offer a small volume of free Internet before asking the customer to buy a pack. Some others provide limited or unlimited Internet to Business and First class passengers.
The high cost of installing equipment may discourage low-cost carriers, and even for full-service carriers, the service may come at a premium. Apart from the equipment cost, airlines will have to bear additional fuel costs, given the extra weight and drag aircraft will face due to the antenna. It is expected that foreign airlines that service Indian airports or use Indian airspace will offer in-flight connectivity before domestic carriers.
How much can customers expect to pay?
A final picture will emerge once commercial arrangements between all stakeholders are in place. Globally, Internet access in the air is not exactly cheap. Singapore Airlines offers free data up to 100 MB in First and Business class on its India-bound flights (which can currently be used only outside Indian airspace). For Economy, data packs are available starting US $ 5 (about Rs 335). Price plans may be volume-based or volume- and time-based. Emirates offers 20 MB of free data to passengers — which is virtually nothing — beyond which it charges up to $ 9.99 (Rs 666) for 150 MB and $ 15.99 (Rs 1,067) for 500 MB. This is equivalent to monthly broadband packs offered by some Indian telecom companies.
Will onboard Internet be dependable?
In general, WiFi on a plane is much slower than on the ground. However, this is changing with newer technologies. Chicago-based in-flight broadband Internet service provider Gogo Air, which offers connectivity to carriers including Delta, AeroMexico, Air France-KLM, British Airways, and Virgin Atlantic, claims it offers 15 Mbps of bandwidth to each passenger device — up from just 3 Mbps in 2008.
Can calls be made from aircraft?
Technology and laws allow them, but many airlines do not want noisy cabins. Lufthansa has said that Internet telephony applications such as Skype, too, are “not allowed out of consideration for other passengers”.
Which airlines and jurisdictions already allow mobile communications?
As per TRAI, over 30 airlines offer onboard connectivity, including AirAsia, Air France, British Airways, Egypt Air, Emirates, Air New Zealand, Malaysia Airlines, Qatar Airways and Virgin Atlantic. According to a report released on January 30 this year by Routehappy, a New York-based company that provides data on air travel, 82 countries now offer WiFi services. Several jurisdictions including countries in North America, the EU, Asia and Australia, have authorised use of mobile communications services on aircraft.