Internet Search on Indian Skies, A Reality Now

February 1, 2018

Early this year in January, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) cleared the decks for in-flight calling and internet usage commonly known as In-Flight Connectivity (IFC) for the Indian Airspace.

In a time where the entire world is at our fingertips through smart phones and other gadgets, Indian airline passengers await anxiously to avail this service. At the moment, the Indian airliners don't provide Wi-Fi because the age-old law which stipulates that no person can use any electronic device which intentionally transmits radio signals like mobile phones, amateur radio receivers while onboard an aircraft.

On the contrary, over 30 airlines allow the use of mobile phone on aircraft, including Air Asia, 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. 

The consultation to initiate IFC on Indian flights began two years back and since then the proposal was shuttling between various ministries for security clearances and then for working out a strategy for implementation.

In the meanwhile, the air traffic in India has nearly doubled to 117 million passengers in 2017 with 100 flights taking off every hour compared with 67 in 2011. It indicates that airliners could make more money from internet in sky, if provided at commercial rates in accordance with international tariff. 

TRAI paper estimated that the number of connected commercial aircraft is expected to grow from 5,300 in 2015 to 23,100 in 2025, accounting for 62 per cent of the global fleet. Besides, another study predicts that the number of aircraft offering wireless connectivity will increase to 14,000 by 2022 which is 50 percent connectivity penetration in commercial aircrafts across the world. This study also projects that approximately 5,000 of these aircrafts will offer both Wi-Fi and cellular options. 

What exactly is In-Flight Connectivity (IFC) In-Flight Connectivity is not a cakewalk; rather it is a rigorous procedure which involves modifications to an existing aircraft when retrofitting and impacts the airline operations. The regulator TRAI while allowing this facility had said that internet services through on-board Wi-Fi should be made available when electronic devices are permitted to be used only in flight or airplane mode and also the announcement regarding this should be made after boarding is completed and the aircraft is about to taxi.   

The study of the airliners which have started this facility, explains that for providing onboard internet connectivity, an aircraft requires a retrofit and antenna is mounted on fuselage. Apart from fixed costs, there are other expenditures related to the subscription of bandwidth or entertainment. Such factors determine charges that airlines might levy on passengers.

Some of the main factors that play into how long it takes to get an aircraft flying with begins with obtaining approvals from regulators to make modifications in the existing aircraft, Gaining access to aircraft during non-seasonal travels and then physically installing the new technology which may take upto a month’s time. Wi-Fi services in airlines are currently being provided by Inmarsat, Viasat, Gogo, Panasonic Avionics, Honeywell Aerospace and Global Eagle Entertainment. 

It is imperative to consider the demand and supply economics for IFC. A recent report conducted by Route happy, provides information on flight amenities, stated that Wi-Fi is now accessible on 43 percent of all available seat miles worldwide, up 10 percent from early 2017. But, this is a very price sensitive market where even full service carriers are now cutting down on amenities and luxury. Not many passengers will be willing to pay extra for availing Wi-Fi," said a market expert.  

The price factor might not completely deter the airliners. Air Asia India very recently said that it was always ready to offer services that will enhance ultimate in-flight customer experience through digital offerings and it would contemplate providing Wi-Fi, based on passenger feedback. 

How can IFC be a game-changer and a win-win situation for every stakeholder. The good news is wide body aircraft like Air India's Boeing 777 and 787 can be retrofitted with equipment. Onboard connectivity is not only a source of ancillary revenue for airlines but increases its value in the mind of flyers in long-haul routes. It can start with a basic pack for free and later move on to paid data packs. The free basic pack will allow receiving and sending emails and checking Whats App. 

At present, Dubai-based Emirates provides 20 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 data. Lufthansa charges passengers anything in the range of 9 to 17 Euros for on-board internet usage for up to 24 hours.

While IFC does have a promising future, it might take time to be implemented on the Indian flights yet, the road ahead looks positive and full of possibility. In India, the charges for in-flight internet are likely to be between Rs 500 to Rs 2,000 for 30 to 60 minutes, in line with international rates. Several Indian airlines are now expected to follow their global counterparts and offer services like Wi-Fi on flights.