The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) on Friday recommended that in-flight connectivity — both Internet and MCA (mobile communication on aircraft) services — should be allowed over Indian airspace.
“It would be the business call of the airline whether it wants to offer Internet services, or MCA services, or both. However, the Authority is of the view that as long as the provision of the service is technically feasible and security concerns can be addressed, there should be no regulatory barrier in the provisioning of any of these services. Therefore, both Internet and MCA service should be permitted as in-flight connectivity (IFC) services in the Indian airspace,” said TRAI. The decision comes after several rounds of consultation with industry and other stakeholders, which started in September last year.
To maintain compatibility with terrestrial networks, TRAI has suggested a minimum height restriction of 3,000 metres for mobile communication. A flight generally attains the altitude of 3,000 metres about four-five minutes after take-off.
The regulator also said that Internet services through onboard Wi-Fi should be made available only when electronic devices are permitted to be used only in flight or airplane mode, an announcement regarding this should be made when boarding is over and the aircraft is about to taxi. “It would ensure that there is no encroachment on the scope of terrestrial Internet service provided by telecom service providers as well as practically there won’t be any appreciable discontinuity in the provisioning of Internet services to the fliers,” said TRAI.
During the consultation process, TRAI said, several stakeholders raised red-flags over providing MCA service, pointing out that its regulatory framework was more complex and issues such as interference, roaming, spectrum use would need to be addressed. Further, one stakeholder also said that airlines were no longer installing MCA technologies as Internet data services, messaging applications and voice over internet protocol applications were addressing most of the in-flight mobile connectivity requirements.
From a policy perspective, TRAI has called for establishing a separate category of licence called in-flight connectivity (IFC) service provider. In its recommendations, the regulator said that to promote the concept of in-flight connectivity, these service providers should be charged a nominal licence fee of Re 1 per annum, which could be changed later. TRAI also said the regulatory requirements should be the same for both Indian and foreign airlines.
The Indian Express, in February 2017, first reported that the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) had proposed allowing in-flight connectivity to give passengers access to voice and data services on board aircraft flying over Indian airspace. The proposal, which was earlier being considered by the Ministry of Civil Aviation, was sent to DoT, which had sought TRAI’s views.
Earlier, the DoT had sent a draft plan to amend the Indian Telegraph Rules and the Indian Telegraph Act to a committee of secretaries, but the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Department of Space had sought clarifications.
Considering that satellite communications technology is more widely used for providing in-flight connectivity worldwide, TRAI has recommended allowing it for providing in-flight connectivity. However, it has also suggested allowing Direct Air-To-Ground communication system. “Some stakeholders submitted that Direct Air-To-Ground (A2G) communication system should also be considered for provision of IFC services. They are of the opinion that the user experience in terms of billing and ‘ease of use’ is better. Further, A2G-based IFC services would be quicker to deploy and also more cost-efficient,” said TRAI.
One of the red flags raised by the Home Ministry was the lawful interception of Internet traffic when using satellite systems. For this, TRAI has suggested that the gateway switch for providing access to the Internet, when an aircraft is in Indian airspace, should be in India. “The deployment of a gateway in India provides an effective mechanism to lawfully intercept and monitor the in-cabin Internet traffic while the aircraft is in Indian airspace. Therefore, the onboard Internet traffic must be routed to a satellite gateway on Indian soil. Such an obligation should be imposed, regardless of whether the satellite in question is an Indian satellite system or not,” TRAI noted.
Globally, while the provision of onboard Wi-Fi is a popular service with airlines, not many allow mobile communication. As per TRAI, 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. Further, more than 40 jurisdictions, including countries in the European Union, Asia and Australia, have authorised the use of mobile communications services on aircraft, said TRAI.