India’s Air Passengers to Connect on the Fly

Author: Ricardo Tavares
Published: 2019-01-07

Starting in this year Indian air passengers will be able to enjoy access to inflight entertainment and WiFi, improving the quality of air travel in the country.

As 2018 came to an end, the Indian government finally issued its Inflight and Maritime Communications (IFMC) policy which regulates how Internet connectivity can be provided to passengers in airplanes and vessels.  The new policy allows both Internet and mobile voice connectivity inside airplanes.  Similar services have been provided elsewhere for well over a decade.  The only other country that blocks WiFi in airplanes was North Korea.

To end this block, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) requested the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to conduct a public consultation on the matter in 2017.  After a public hearing, with arguments and counter-arguments, TRAI concluded its analysis, sending an opinion to the DoT in January of 2018.  The DoT conducted a few additional conversations with sector players, a group of Ministers met to finalize the policy, and finally on December 14th, 2018 the policy was issued.  A new category of service providers, granting inflight and maritime connectivity, was created, requiring ISP and long distance or VSAT unified licenses to operate.

The process of making the inflight communications policy reveals how these changes in digital regulation happen in India.  Airline executives early on thought the issue was to convince the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), part of the Ministry of Civil Aviation, and the DoT, part of the Ministry of Communications, that WiFi in airplanes is safe.  But in the end the most influential agencies were somewhere else. Department of Space (DoS), part of the Prime Minister’s office, as well as security agencies proved to be highly influential in the final policy since connectivity in airplanes uses satellite communications.

Freeing WiFi in airplanes makes India’s domestic airlines more sustainable and competitive.   Several local airlines are near bankruptcy, including Jet Airways and state-owned Air India. The cut-throat, price-sensitive domestic market is a red ocean.  Local airlines can now expand into more profitable international routes, where they will compete against Gulf, U.S., European and Asian airlines. Those airlines offer WiFi and sophisticated entertainment systems on board which Indian airlines haven’t been able to match. 

Introducing new technologies in India require persistence, respect for the various branches of the government, understanding of where the red-lines are marked, and to be alert for windows of opportunity.  In the IFMC policy, at least four Ministries—Aviation, Communications, Maritime Transportation, and Home Affairs—and five agencies (DGCA, DoT, TRAI, DoS, and security bodies) were involved.   As Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who will run for reelection in May, saw his party lose important elections in key Indian states last December, the pressure to have a success story from his administration grew. The inflight communications policy was a low-hanging fruit ready to go, and so it did.

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