Indo Teleports Limited (ITL), a subsidiary of Bharti Airtel, has received an ‘in-flight and maritime connectivity’ licence to provide Wi-Fi and mobile services on flights in Indian airspace, the Times of India reported on Friday. An Airtel spokesperson has confirmed the development to MediaNama. State-run telecom company BSNL was granted the same licence earlier in the week. Its partner Inmarsat said they expected to commence services “later this year once the ground infrastructure and associated approvals are in place”.

To say India is late to the party would be a huge understatement. According to the Wall Street Journal (paywall) India and North Korea are the only two countries that still do not allow in-flight connectivity. It was less than a year ago, in May 2018, that India’s Telecom Commission approved TRAI’s recommendations to allow in-flight connectivity in Indian airspace. According a blog post by eDreams, a travel website, 54 airlines were offering in-flight connectivity as of January 2018 – eight of these for free. A 2018 survey by Inmarsat, BSNL’s partner, revealed that two out of three passengers would be more likely to rebook with an airline if it offered Wi-Fi. This rose to 81% for people travelling with children and 83% for business travellers.

TRAI, TRAI until you succeed

In October 2017, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (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.

In January 2018 it recommended that in-flight connectivity — both Internet and MCA (mobile communication on aircraft) services — should be allowed over Indian airspace. It said mobile communication would be allowed once the plane was at an altitude of about 300 metres to ensure “compatibility with terrestrial mobile networks”.

TRAI also suggested that a ground gateway in India be used to “lawfully intercept and monitor the in-cabin internet traffic” while the aircraft is in Indian airspace. “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,” TRAI said in a recommendation paper.

Rules for in-flight connectivity

In December 2018 the Department of Telecom notified the rules for in-flight connectivity in a circular. Here’s a lowdown:

Who can apply?

Any Indian airline or foreign airline company with permission to enter 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.

Licensing

A license will be issued to an airline if:

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

The airline may provide data services via WiFi, but to provide mobile data it must enter into a commercial agreement with:

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

Once it meets all the requirements, an airline will be authorised to provide in-flight connectivity for 10 years. Read more here.