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DoT’s in-flight connectivity rules: Licenses, regulations and monitoring

A year after the TRAI first recommended that in-flight connectivity be allowed over the Indian airspace, the Department of Telecom has notified the rules for in-flight connectivity in a circular dated December 14 (pdf). The rules are called ‘Flight and Maritime Connectivity Rules, 2018’ and will come into effect once they are published in the official Gazette of India.

Here’s a lowdown of the rules

Who can apply?
Any Indian airline or foreign airline company having permission to enter the Indian airspace can apply for an in-flight license. Any company registered under the Companies Act, 2013 or any previous company law is also eligible for this license.

Licensing
A license will be issued to an airline company for providing in-flight connectivity given:

  • The airline holds a license of access service or an ISP category A license
  • The airline should have NLD (National Long Distance) license, or a commercial VSAT-CUG (Very Small Aperture Terminal – Closed Use Group) service license. In case the airline is providing connectivity via satellite, it must have a satellite gateway earth station within service area.

The airline may provide data services via WiFi, but to provide data service via mobile data the airline has enter into a commercial agreement with:

  • an access service provider or an ISP Category A
  • A commercial VSAT or NLD service with a satellite gateway earth station within the service area

An airline company will be authorized to provide in-flight connectivity services for a period of 10 years once it meets all the requirements. Airline companies have to make an application and submit a non-refundable processing fee.

Restrictions
The airline can provide mobile communication service on the flight only after attaining a height of 3000 meters in the Indian airspace, this is to avoid interference with terrestrial mobile networks. WiFi services will be made available only when electronics are in airplane mode.

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Regulation and safety: 

  • There will be a separate infrastructure for airlines and navigation system on the aircraft to avoid interference. The in-flight connectivity services shall be exclusively in the control of the pilot of captain of the aircraft, he/she can turn off the connectivity during any ‘adverse condition’.
  • In case the in-flight connectivity services are being provided via a satellite system, the network shall pass through a satellite gateway earth station located within India. Such earth stations will be connected with the NLD or access service or ISP’s network for further delivery of connectivity.

Monitoring and interception
The “designated authority” has the right to monitor or intercept signals passing via the in-flight connection network. The hardware and software required for lawful interception and monitoring of data will be arranged by the airline or by the airline’s partnering licensee at Centre and State government offices. The airline will also arrange for monitoring of the network by itself or via its partner licensee.

Foreign satellites a no go

About six months ago, the TRAI had rejected the Department of Telecommunication’s concerns over providing in-flight connectivity service using foreign satellites. The regulator flagged concerns about giving permissions to foreign satellites and gateways, since only satellites approved by the government’s Department of Space with Indian Gateways are allowed. TRAI instead recommended that the government use both foreign and Indian service providers for providing in-flight mobile services.

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