In-flight connectivity on Indian airlines could soon be a reality as domestic carrier Vistara gears up to launch its broadband service by March-end after approval by Department of Telecommunications (DoT) last year. As of now, only data services will be offered and voice calls could be introduced later.
Passengers onboard some Vistara flights will be able to use data to make WhatsApp calls, send messages on Facebook, and read email. Given the experience in other countries, streaming video might not be easy as speeds won’t be all that great. The in-flight connectivity service by Vistara, launched in partnership with Tata group firm Nelco, will be offered on its Dreamliners and Airbus 321 planes. “Nelco is the first Indian company to provide this service in the country, marking the beginning of a new era of wi-fi on aircraft in Indian skies,” a press release said.
So, what is in-flight connectivity and how does it work? We take a look:
What is in-flight connectivity?
In-flight connectivity essentially allows those onboard aircraft to access voice, video and data services after the aircraft has attained an altitude of 3,000 meters. In-flight connectivity for aircraft flying over Indian airspace was approved by the DoT in May 2018.
How does in-flight connectivity work?
In-flight connectivity relies on onboard antenna as well as satellites for Internet and mobile communications. In the case of the former, the signals are picked up by the onboard antenna from the nearest tower on the ground, though the connection does become an issue after a certain altitude if the aircraft is passing over an area with no towers, say a large water body.
When it comes to the use of satellite, it works in a manner similar to how satellite TV signals are transmitted. So, an onboard router, which connects to the plane’s antenna transmits data to a personal electronic device. The signals are then transmitted to ground station via satellites and is redirected to a billing server for calculation of the data consumption. Finally, the signal is relayed to the World Wide Web.
While the telecom commission has allowed Internet onboard Internet services onboard, the telecom operator has said it will be made available when devices are used only on flight mode. Internet services, hence, could only be used through onboard WiFi as of now.
Which airlines in India and globally offer in-flight connectivity?
As of now, in-flight connectivity is yet to launch on Indian airlines, though the service is offered by a host of airlines worldwide including, Delta Air Lines, Emirates, Ethiad, Finnair, British Airways, Nok Air, Oman Air, Philippine Airlines, US Airways, Virgin America, and more. While the provision of onboard WiFi is also available, not many airlines allow mobile communication. Over 30 airlines allow the use of mobile phone on aircraft, including AirAsia, Air France, British Airways, Egypt Air, Emirates, Air New Zealand, Malaysia Airlines, Qatar Airways and Virgin Atlantic.
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How much will in-flight connectivity cost?
The airlines are free to decide the tariff, as the DoT has not regulated that aspect. “I suppose this will be kind of an add-on service which the airline will offer. Whether they will charge or not is their decision,” telecom secretary Anshu Prakash had earlier told The Indian Express. Globally, given the high cost of satellite connectivity, the internet services available onboard aircraft are charged at a premium over what is available otherwise.
The airlines will have to incur high cost of installing equipment, including the installation of antennae on aircraft. the additional cost could find a way into ticket prices. Airlines will also have to bear additional fuel costs, given the extra weight of the antenna.
For customers, Internet access in the air might come at a hefty price. Singapore Airlines offers free data up to 100 MB in First and Business class on its India-bound flights, while Emirates offers 20 MB of free data to passengers, beyond which it charges up to $ 9.99 (Rs 666) for 150 MB and $ 15.99 (Rs 1,067) for 500 MB.
What about mobile communication services
Even as the process to streamline broadband services onboard flights has been initiated, mobile communication on airlines (MCA) might still take time to be a reality. The TRAI, had, however, recommended that both broadband and MCA should be allowed over Indian airspace.
Several stakeholders had raised concerns over providing MCA to passengers citing a complex regulatory framework with issues such as interference, roaming, and spectrum use. Also, with in-flight broadband connectivity allowing messaging services and voice calling, there is little requirement to speed up MCA.
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