The TRAI has rejected the Department of Telecommunications’s concerns over providing in-flight connectivity in flights in India using foreign satellites.

The DoT wrote to the TRAI expressing concern about giving permission to foreign satellites and foreign gateways, which are not in conformance with “CoS decision” (presumably the Committee of Secretaries representing different ministries) as only satellites approved by the Department of Space with Indian Gateways are allowed.

The TRAI had recommended the usage of both foreign and Indian service providers for provisioning of mobile communications on the aircraft. It has clarified to the DoT that Internet services may be provisioned by any ISP on ground, through satellite links, and that it is easy to switch satellites when moving from one jurisdiction to the other when a foreign aircraft is entering Indian airspace, and thus connecting with an Indian ISP via a satellite gateway in India.

However, things become tricky when it comes to mobile calls on board the aircraft. The TRAI says that only a few service providers provide mobile calls on the aircraft because that requires the creation of on-ground facilities, and the installation of a picocell on the aircraft, which is compatible with the mobile service providers network, and thus is not compatible with any other mobile operators’ network. Calling needs to be routed through that network itself. Thus usage of that network will require the use of foreign satellites and gateway.

Lawful interception of communications in-flight

The TRAI says that the in-flight communications service provider should not be permitted to provide standalone mobile calling services if the partnering mobile operator is a foreign entity. They should necessarily be required to deliver onboard Internet services in arrangement with an Indian ISP, with authorisation. This will enable interception of Internet traffic through “mirror mode gateway mechanism”.

Thus, the CoS decision to use only satellites approved by the Department of Space, as per the TRAI, is not implementable.

Quick take

Given this situation, it looks like this policy will take time to receive the DoT approval, given that the CoS guidelines don’t allow the usage of foreign satellites, and that process will involve policy changes at the Department of Space and CoS, following which DoT can then approve allowing in-flight connectivity and calling.