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Telecom Commission approves in-flight internet access and mobile connectivity

The Telecom Commission has approved TRAI’s recommendations for offering voice & data services in flights within Indian airspace. This means that air travellers in India will soon have access to the internet and make calls from their mobile phones while flying.

The decision will allow airlines to offer these services once they meet certain security norms. Internet access can be provided only when boarding is over and the aircraft is about to taxi. Mobile communication will be allowed when the aircraft has risen to about 3,000 metres in altitude. The 3000-metre minimum altitude restriction has been done to ensure “compatibility with terrestrial mobile networks”.

In January, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) had recommended that in-flight connectivity — both Internet and MCA (mobile communication on aircraft) services — should be allowed over Indian airspace. In October 2017, the TRAI had released a consultation paper calling for views from stakeholders about whether or not in-flight connectivity should be allowed in India, and the government licensing framework for this.

According to the recommendation paper released by TRAI, many stakeholders were of the view that “at present only Internet service should be considered because its demand is more than MCA service.” Stakeholders had raised concerns over the regulatory framework governing mobile telephony and issues such as interference, roaming, spectrum usage, quality of service would need to be addressed. The paper mentioned that one stakeholder suggested that airlines were no longer installing MCA technologies as Internet data services, messaging applications and voice over internet protocol applications were fulfilling most of the in-flight mobile connectivity requirements.

Licensing and spectrum: TRAI called for creating a separate category licence called in-flight connectivity (IFC) service provider to provide connectivity for airlines registered in India. In its recommendations, the regulator said that to promote the concept of in-flight connectivity, these service providers should be charged a nominal license 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.

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Technology used: For enabling in-flight connectivity the TRAI said airlines will be allowed to use both satellite communications systems and Direct Air-To-Ground communication systems. For solutions based on satellite communications, TRAI suggests that global standards should be mandated. However, these standards would not be applicable to the solutions based on Air-To-Ground communication system since it will use the same standards that are used in terrestrial mobile communications.

Security issues: On the issue of monitoring/interception Internet traffic TRAI has suggested that a ground gateway in India can be used 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,” the report added.

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