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In-Flight Connectivity: On-Board Internet and Mobile Communication on aircrafts.

Context:

The Telecom Commission recently allowed in-flight connectivity of Internet and mobile communications on aircrafts in the Indian airspace.

What is In-Flight Connectivity:

1)Inflight connectivity consists of internet and mobile connectivity in the airspace. As the aircraft is out of reach of the mobile towers on the ground, an inflight service provider provides a link between the electronic devices on the aircraft and the towers on the ground.

2)With the proliferation of mobile phones and internet, there has been a strong demand for mobile and data connectivity on flights, especially in long haul flights where the passengers are cut off from the ground for long periods of time., for example 15 hours.

3)Wi-Fi on flights was first introduced in US by Gogo Inc. on Virgin Atlantic airlines in 2008. It offered speed of up to 3Mbps using Satellite Internet. This direct transmission of internet through satellites was initially carried out on Ku band.

Status of in-flight connectivity around the world:

1)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.

2)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.

3)Several jurisdictions including countries in North America, the EU, Asia and Australia, have authorised use of mobile communications services on aircraft.

Mobile communication on aircraft:

1)The operation of MCA (mobile communication on aircraft) services has a minimum height restriction of 3,000 metres in Indian airspace to ensure its “compatibility with terrestrial mobile networks”.

2)For making calls, the airplane mode in the phone will have to be kept off, although usually it is kept on during the duration of the flight.

3)Foreign airlines which already provide IFC but had to switch the same off in Indian airspace

4)Most airlines globally offer Wi-Fi on board as allowing mobile calls is seen as “too much of a nuisance” for fellow travellers.

On-board Internet:

In-flight internet services are made available through geostationary satellites, widely used for TV signals and weather forecast.

Technology used:

There are two types of Technologies used:

Technology 1:

1)An onboard antenna picks up signals from the nearest tower on the ground, just like, say, a moving car.

2)Unless the aircraft passes over a big water body with no towers, the connection will remain seamless up to a certain altitude.

Issue:Will work only when the aircraft flies over land and not water bodies. Will be a problem for flights which fly over oceans.

Technology 2:

1)Satellites can be used to connect to ground stations, similar to the way satellite TV signals are transmitted.

2)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.

Issue: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.

Issues:

1)Cost of installation: The cost of installation would be huge. It would be easier to have the equipment installed on new aircrafts rather than taking planes out of service for retrofitting.It might also lead to disruption in services.

2)Noise in aircrafts:Service will help travellers immensely, although noise levels within aircraft may rise.

3)Cost of making calls:These are satellite calls. The prices will be equal to roaming rates. Might not be preferred by all passengers.

4)Rise in ticket prices:Depending on airlines’ commercial decisions, the additional cost could find a way into ticket prices, which are already under pressure from rising fuel prices. The charges may not be recoverable from passengers in short-haul flights.

5)Extra fuel cost:  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.

6)Speed issues: WiFi on a plane is much slower than on the ground.

Benefits:

1)It would enable flyers to avail data and voice services during flights over Indian airspace.

2)Airlines will now be equipped to bring dramatic, yet cost effective, enhancements to the passenger experience –with passengers ordering products from their phones and tablets and arranging to have them delivered to their homes, or the hotel on arrival at their destination

3)Connectivity to the ground means cabin crews can help passengers to change their onward transit plans to accommodate for changes to their flight, while they are still in the air.

4)It would enable Indian carriers to compete with their foreign peers.

5)Foreign carriers which earlier had to switch off in-service connectivity while flying over Indian Airspace will no longer have to do so.

Steps to be taken:

1)Trai suggested creating licences for IFC service providers.The Government will now work towards creating the license framework for a special category of service providers called ‘In-flight connectivity provider.

2)These IFC Service Providers will have to get themselves registered with the department of telecom and they need not necessarily be an Indian entity.

3)TRAI suggested that foreign telecom operators should be allowed to offer voice services in partnership with a local telecoms so that the mandated lawful interception requirement is met and on-board internet traffic must be routed to a satellite gateway on Indian soil.

4)The IFC service provider should be imposed a flat annual licence fee of token amount of Rs 1 which would be reviewed later.

Way forward:

1)This is a boost to the Indian civil aviation market.

2)Indian carriers can compete with foreign carriers.

3)Over time, the Wi-Fi services might become completely free once the cost of installation is recovered.

4)The airlines can recover the cost through advertisements and fee from online transactions.

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