In flight WiFi for India moves a step closer to reality

It’s been a long time coming, and the wait isn’t over yet, but India’s aviation industry has inched a step closer to having WiFi on board. A new ruling, filed in the Gazette of India last month, will permit the use of portable devices with WiFi switched on, as long as the pilot agrees.

smartphone on board aircraft
Soon passengers traveling in India will be able to stay connected. Photo: Pexels

For the longest time, India has been only one of two nations (the other being North Korea) to bar in flight data in its airspace. Airlines flying into Indian territory who do offer Wi-Fi had previously been required to turn services off. However, all that could be about to change, with a new provisional ruling expected to enter law in the coming weeks.

New rules in a matter of weeks

Despite India making positive noises about inflight WiFi for some time, it’s taken a really long time for the rules to be written into the Aircraft Act to allow passengers to stay connected. Specifically, the additional passage to be added to rule 29B  of the Aircraft Rules, 1937, reads,

“Provided further that the Pilot-in-Command may permit the use of mobile communication and internet services through Wi-Fi on board an aircraft certified by the Director-General for such services and subject to the procedures specified by the Director-General in that behalf;”

Vistara smartphone
Full-service Vistara could be one of the first to offer WiFi. Photo: Vistara

At the moment, the new rules constitute a notice, giving interested parties the opportunity to make suggestions or lodge objections to the amendment. According to the filing, the draft rules will be reviewed in light of any feedback from stakeholders within 30 days of the date of the filing (which was August 14th).

This takes us up to the end of next week, after which time the rules will either be amended or cemented into the Aircraft Act, giving Indian carriers and passengers the right to start using WiFi services in flight.

Does this mean India will be connected?

As pointed out in PaxEx Aero, the adoption of this rule will not mean inflight connectivity is instantly available. Although the regulators are slowly getting on board, both the airlines and the service providers need to make a move before connectivity is available.

Since the introduction of Flight and Maritime Connectivity Rules last year, telecom operators have been able to apply for licenses to run such services, via India’s telecom regulator TRAI. So far, we know that Hughes Communications India, in partnership with Global Eagle, has successfully secured a license. According to EOTO Tech, Airtel and Jio are also in the process of applying.

Inmarsat GX
Inmarsat’s GX is making progress. Image: Inmarsat

Inmarsat too is keen to connect the nation, through Global Xpress. PaxEx Aero says that they are making progress in bringing its ground station online, as well as working towards other regulatory requirements, and is hoping to have something in place by the end of the year.

Which carriers will offer WiFi?

A number of Indian carriers are keen to get on board with a WiFi offering in the near future. Right now, SpiceJet is in the lead for being the first to offer WiFi, as its fleet of 737 MAXs are arriving with Inmarsat GX connectivity on board. However, with the aircraft currently grounded and its re-entry into service still hanging in the balance, it remains to be seen which will come first, the MAX or the IFEC. It’s unclear at this stage whether SpiceJet intends to install WiFi on its older aircraft too.

Spicejet and IndiGo
SpiceJet could be one of the first; IndiGo is not interested. Photo: Paul Hamilton via Flickr

In a blow to Global Eagle, its confirmed customer, the once-mega airline Jet Airways has gone out of business. This leaves the provider looking for a new customer to make the most of its already secured license to operate.

Air India is reportedly keen to get on board with WiFi. However, recent financial troubles and the pending privatization of the carrier could mean these  plans are shelved for the time being. We’d fully expect full service up and coming airline Vistara to want to provide WiFi. However, no news is forthcoming about any firm deal for services.

IndiGo has made clear it is not currently interested in WiFi provision. The Indian aviation sector is incredibly price sensitive, and IndiGo knows that it will only maintain its exceptional market share if it can remain the cheapest carrier. Anything that adds to that cost is a turn off for this particular carrier.

For foreign carriers entering Indian airspace, offering WiFi should be easier. With equipment already installed, they need only to tie up with a connection provider to bring the system online. Perhaps this will be an opportunity for Global Eagle to step in, as the only large provider with a current license in place?

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