NEW DELHI: Millions of travellers will soon get to use internet and voice services on mobile phones during flights in the Indian airspace, as the Telecom Commission today cleared a proposal for allowing wider in-flight connectivity that is now available in most of the developed markets.
Major airlines, including Air India and Vistara, today welcomed the Telecom Commission's decision, with Civil Aviation Minister Suresh Prabhu saying he will ensure "earliest implementation" of the proposal.
While mobile phone users will still be restricted during takeoff and landing, the Telecom Department's highest decision-making body has approved the lifting of a ban on the use mobile phones and internet services at cruising altitudes.
Globally, many airlines are already offering wi-fi for passengers, but they currently have to switch off the facility when they enter the Indian airspace.
AirAsia, Air France, British Airways, Egypt Air, Emirates, Air New Zealand, Malaysia Airlines, Qatar Airways and Virgin Atlantic are amongst 30 airlines that are already allowing mobile phone use on aircraft.
The in-flight connectivity facility is expected to be rolled out in 3-4 months, once the modalities of the niche licences and back-end agreements are worked out, Telecom Secretary Aruna Sundararajan told reporters after the two-hour meeting of the Telecom Commission here.
Under Indian civil aviation regulations, airlines at present order mobile phones to be turned off to avoid interference with aircrafts communication systems.
However, use of other electronic devices, such as tablets that do not interfere with flight radio signals, is allowed once aeroplane reach cruising height.
Sundararajan said the Telecom Commission has largely agreed to the telecom regulator Trai's recommendations on 'in-flight connectivity' (IFC) -- provision of internet and mobile services during air travel - with exception to one aspect pertaining to foreign satellites and gateways.
"Trai had said that foreign satellites and foreign gateways should also be permitted. But there had been an earlier Committee of Secretaries meeting which decided that it should be an Indian satellite or Department of Space approved satellite and the gateway should be in India. So, the proposal is cleared subject to this. All the other recommendations of Trai have been accepted," said Sundararajan, who also chairs the Telecom Commission. The decision of the Telecom Commission will be operationalised "immediately", she added.
"Exciting times ahead in the Indian skies as Telecom Commission approves data and voice services in flights over Indian airspace!," Prabhu said in a tweet.
Noting that he would follow up closely to ensure the earliest implementation, Prabhu also said, "We remain committed in improving the services to our air passengers, making their travel delightful and hassle-free".
Trai had recommended that internet access through wi-fi onboard be provided once boarding is complete and the passengers start operating devices in aeroplane mode, and that mobile communication on aircraft be allowed at a minimum altitude of about 3,000 metres.
"We will have to create a separate category of licensees for providing such services. It will also provide for connectivity on ships in Indian territorial waters," she said, adding that the licence fee for such IFC providers will be pegged at Re 1.Mobile services on ships or water vessels get hampered when subscribers travel over large water bodies due to unavailability of mobile towers."
The provisions of IFC will facilitate mobile communications in such scenario with help of satellite connectivity within territorial waters.
Asked about the price at which these services will be offered to the airlines consumers, and whether the same would be market determined rate or at a premium, Sundararajan said, "It will have to be worked out on a mutually-agreed basis between the service provider and the aircraft (Airlines). Each will have a service provider of choice with whom they may have international agreements".
On the timeline for operationalising these services, she said that the licence norms will have to be framed and thereafter the applications will be invited.
"They will have to tie-up their back-end agreements with telcos, and satellite providers. We will try to expedite the process. I think (it may take about) 3-4 months definitely for consumers to get the service," she said responding to a specific query.
Trai, in January this year, had recommended to the government that in-flight mobile telephony and internet services can be allowed, using satellite and terrestrial network but after providing a mechanism for lawful interception and monitoring of wi-fi in aircraft cabins to ensure safety.
The regulator had recommended the creation of an 'In-Flight Connectivity' (IFC) Service Provider at an annual licence fee of Re 1 only initially, after entering into an arrangement with telecom licence holder having appropriate authorisation.
The Trai recommendations came after Department of Telecom, on August 2017, sought its views over a proposal to introduce voice, data and video services over Indian airspace for domestic, international and overflying flights in Indian airspace.
In February, India's largest telecom operator Bharti Airtel had announced it has joined a new global collaboration to bring high-speed and uninterrupted in-flight data connectivity to mobile customers.