The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) took another step towards authorizing the use of infilght wifi connectivity earlier this month. The move authorizes the use of such services on board domestic and international flights. India’s aviation market is large and growing rapidly; it presents a massive opportunity for inflight connectivity companies to generate revenues.
The process is still not 100% resolved. The Telecom Commission must create a structure for licensing In Flight Connectivity (IFC) service providers. This is expected to be complete within 90 days. From there the companies must apply and prove compliance with the regulations. Most critical of these: All communication to aircraft must take place via Indian satellites or via Indian ground stations.
Got the welcome news of Telecom Commission’s approval for in-flight data and voice services while I was in South Africa for attending India-South Africa Business Summit pic.twitter.com/1mv5XDGRu3
— Suresh Prabhu (@sureshpprabhu) May 1, 2018
Requiring the Indian gateway or satellite operation is all about the ability to monitor and control communications within the country. A similar policy is in place for domestic airline connectivity in China. The January recommendation of the group did not include this requirement; the final approval does.
The biggest initial winners with the announcement are Jet Airways and Global Eagle. The two companies confirmed in April a MoU to fit 150 single-aisle aircraft with connectivity. The first 70 of these will be from the existing 737NG fleet the carrier operates and which also fly with Global Eagle’s inflight entertainment system on board. The additional 80 included in the MoU are expected to be future 737MAX deliveries based on the current fleet plan. Global Eagle expects to begin fitting the aircraft later this year.
The ground station requirements may prove challenging for some vendors. There are technical workarounds possible that involve terrestrial backhaul of the data into the country before it egresses to the Internet. Indeed, such an approach is necessary to support an Indian airline flying on the other side of the world where a satellite would not have line-of-sight to a ground station in country. Similar arrangements operate with China today. It is unclear if Indian authorities will accept this design, though it seems likely. Without such several satellite operators and networks, including Inmarsat‘s Global Xpress would be excluded from offering service as they do not have a ground station in India.
Many in the industry also remain skeptical of the financial viability of the inflight connectivity market. That’s a global challenge but within India may prove more pointed given the incredibly low average airfares in the country. Passengers are familiar with the ancillary revenue model so they may be willing to pay, but on a global scale that remains a challenge. Opening the new market could present opportunities for service providers to deploy new targeted advertising schemes to subsidize the connectivity costs. The push towards personalization may see an ally with this Indian foray.
Header Image: Jet Airways 737 via Flickr/CC-BY 2.0