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On-flight net connectivity over Indian airspace in offing

18 February 2017

In a potential boost to the airline sector, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has proposed allowing in-flight connectivity which will give passengers access to voice, video and data services on board when the aircraft is flying over Indian airspace.

The proposal, which was earlier being considered by the civil aviation ministry, is currently being worked on by the DoT and a final policy on the issue is expected shortly.

The DoT is reported to have sent a draft plan to amend the Indian Telegraph Rules and the Indian Telegraph Act about a month ago to a committee of secretaries, but the proposal came back with the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Department of Space seeking certain clarifications.

''When it went to the committee, it got support from a number of departments, including civil aviation and the DIPP (Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion). Home and space departments raised some issues which will be addressed in the final policy,'' an official was reported by The Indian Express as saying, adding that a revised proposal would be made to the panel by end of this month.

In-flight connectivity can be provided through ground-to-air communication and satellite communication but the DoT proposal is specifically focused on providing connectivity on board through satellites.

Some of the concerns raised pertained to satellites and whether Indian or foreign satellites would be used. ''The Ministry of Home Affairs specifically wanted to know if legal interception will be possible, and it is possible. This will be addressed in the revised proposal,'' the official said.

Wireless internet on aircraft is provided through an on-board router, which is connected to the aircraft's antennae. These antennae pick internet signals to send and receive data from satellites and this communication channel does not interfere with the ground-to-air communication channel used by pilots for conducting air traffic conversations.

Experts suggest that while only a few devices with functioning cellular service do not interfere with the aircraft's communication systems, a large number of devices searching for cellular signals might.

However, most smartphones today offer a Wi-Fi option, which is the only requisite to connect to the airline's Wi-Fi system even when the device is on airplane mode, meaning its cellular radio is turned off.

Currently, a number of foreign airlines offer in-flight internet connectivity to their passengers but are not allowed to do so when they enter Indian airspace.

The existing Indian Telegraph Act says that the Centre may grant a license, in consideration of payments as it thinks fit to, may allow establishment of ''wireless telegraphs on ships within Indian territorial waters (and on aircraft within or above [India] or Indian territorial waters)'' provided that the government prepares rules under the Act.

The international in-flight connectivity market was pegged to be worth $2.45 billion in 2016 and is expected to grow at a compounded annual growth rate of 13.5 per cent and reach $4.62 billion by year 2021, according to estimates by Scalar Market Research.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), in its Global Passenger Survey 2016 said that if Wi-Fi was made available on-board, 30 per cent of the passengers would use them to send and receive emails, while 23 per cent of them would use it for instant messaging, and 22 per cent would browse the internet.

Globally, several airlines are considering removing their in-flight entertainment systems to save installation and maintenance costs on their aircraft and replacing them with on-board Wi-Fi, which passengers could access with their own devices.

In India, some airlines offer restricted wireless services, which passengers may use to access the airline's entertainment offering through their own devices. Some aviation experts have also pegged in-flight connectivity to be an important ancillary revenue stream for airlines.

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