After years of waiting, in-flight WiFi is soon coming to India
In-flight internet connectivity via WiFi isn’t a new concept. It has been operational in a host of airlines worldwide and has become a necessary service on long-haul flights. India is the world’s fastest-growing aviation market and airlines like IndiGo have become behemoths rather quickly.
Currently, you cannot access Wi-Fi inside an airplane due to security reasons. Even foreign airlines are forced to turn-off connectivity services when in Indian airspace. Last year, the government introduced Flight and Maritime Connectivity Rules to allow in-flight calling and internet surfing.
Thanks to these guidelines, telecom operators can now apply for an operating license from India’s telecom regulator TRAI. Hughes Communications India and Tatanet Services have already bagged the Flight and Maritime Connectivity (IFMC) license. Even Airtel and Jio are in the process of getting one according to reports.
BSNL has tied up with Inmarsat to provide inflight-connectivity in India. The British company specializes in providing remote connectivity via its range of satellites and the end product is called GX Aviation. Thanks to the license, it can offer data services via GlobalXpress, the world’s first global Ka-band satellite network.
Right now Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, and Air China are a few airlines that use the same suite to provide connectivity at 35,000 feet.
How does in-flight WiFi work?
There are two ways of connecting, one is the normal route of connecting with on-ground antenna’s and the other one is a bit more complicated. When flying over vast oceans, there are no on-surface antenna’s to communicate with, hence the plane directly connects with satellites.
Information is transmitted to and from your smartphone via a radome on the top of the aircraft, which connects to the closest satellite signal. Information is passed between the ground and the plane via the satellite. Wi-Fi signal is distributed to plane passengers via an on-board router.
Who will offer it in India?
Air India is considering to provide onboard WiFi on wide-body aircraft that fly medium to long haul international routes like those to US, Europe, Southeast Asia, and Australia. AI chairman Pradeep Singh Kharola told Times of India, the airline is in talks with service providers for this and a final call will be taken after the financial implications of the same have been determined.
Spicejet has been optimistic about the new addition and intends to be the first carrier to offer free WiFi onboard. We expect full-service carrier Vistara to also be evaluating options. India’s largest airline IndiGo has been silent about this and I’ll explain why further.
But, will this be economical?
India’s aviation is going through turbulent times once again due to Jet Airway’s financial trouble. Failure of the country’s oldest private airline is a simple indication that the market isn’t ready for widespread full-service carriers right now. With high price sensitivity, airlines have to keep costs as low as possible.
IndiGo is the country’s largest airline with more than 200 aircraft, and it is known for its frugality. Passengers won’t book even if there’s an INR 100 difference, and with this level of competition, offering ultra-premium services like in-flight WiFi is a risky bet.
Planes need to be fitted with a special radome on top of the fuselage and further routers need to be installed. The initial cost of making the aircraft ready is high and needs at least two-three days of grounding. Later, per MB charge is exorbitant when the passengers are used to paying no more than a US$ 1 (INR 69) for 1GB of 4G data on the ground.
5MB of bandwidth costs US$ 5.99 (INR 410) on Singapore Airlines and Qatar charges US$ 5.0 for 30MB (INR 345). Is there enough demand in India to convince airlines this investment is worthy? This could be the core reason why IndiGo isn’t interested.
Interestingly, SpiceJet is the only airline in India that has WiFi ready jets. Meaning, the new Boeing 737 MAX8 already come fit with a Honeywell JetWave radome, all it needs is a connection. But, even these planes are grounded due to the ongoing MAX8 crash investigations.
According to the rules, passengers can make phone calls or use the Internet when a flight is at a minimum height of 3,000 m in Indian airspace to avoid interference with terrestrial mobile networks. Foreign carriers coming to India will be in a better position to offer connectivity since most of them have equipment available and just need to tie-up with a connection provider.