TRAI clears path for broadband, voice services aboard planes

NEW DELHI: Broadband connectivity and making voice calls from 32,000 feet above sea level while flying may soon become a reality over Indian space if broadcast and telecom regulator TRAI’s recommendations are accepted by some other government organisations, including ISRO.

TRAI, while giving an in-principle green signal to in-flight connectivity (IFC), has suggested use of both domestic and foreign satellite systems for providing such services onboard airplanes and has dangled as an incentive levying of a token annual license fee of Re 1 on the service provider that could be reviewed at a later stage.

TRAI has also recommended that the gateway for providing the IFC be located in India and that such a deployment will provide an effective mechanism to lawfully intercept and monitor the in-cabin internet traffic while the aircraft is in Indian airspace.

Pointing out that onboard Internet traffic’s routing must be made obligatory via a satellite gateway on Indian soil, TRAI on Friday in a series of guidelines said, “The IFC service provider should be permitted to use either (Indian) INSAT systems or foreign satellite capacity leased through Department of Space (DOS) or foreign satellites outside INSAT systems in the Indian airspace (coordinated by ITU).”

The Telecom Ministry had requested TRAI to furnish recommendations on licencing terms and conditions for provision of IFC for voice, data and video services, including those related to entry fee, licence fee and spectrum allocations.

Making a case for creating and registration with the government a “separate category” for IFC service provider, TRAI said the operation should be permitted with minimum height restriction of 3,000 meters in Indian airspace for its compatibility with terrestrial mobile networks. Internet services through wi-fi onboard should be made available when electronic devices are permitted to use only in flight/ airplane mode, it added highlighting the IFC provider need not necessarily be an Indian entity.

According to TRAI, the IFC service provider should be permitted to provide services after entering into an arrangement with unified licensee(s) having appropriate government authorisation.

“If IFC service provider partners with… the licencee (that) also has commercial VSAT CUG service authorisation, it can provide the satellite links also. Alternatively, unified licencee with national long distance service authorisation can provide the satellite links,” the regulator suggested, adding, the regulatory requirements should be same for both India and foreign-registered airlines for offering IFC services in Indian airspace.

Some of the other recommendations include the following:

--- Spectrum neutral approach should be adopted, subject to the condition that the frequency bands have been harmonized and coordinated for their use at the ITU.

--- It would facilitate the IFC services in all the bands (L, Ku and Ka) in which IFC services are currently being provided.

--- The framework recommended for IFC services in Indian airspace should be made applicable to all types of aircrafts such as commercial airlines, business jets, executive aircrafts etc.

--- There should not be any difference in the charges to be levied for domestic and foreign airlines in Indian Airspace

--- Satellite operators should be permitted to use of bandwidth already assigned to satellite operators for the use of IFC services also.

--- In case of multiple spot beam satellite, an aircraft may pass through many beams. In such a scenario, DOS should consider not charging for individual beams, but evolve the charging mechanism based upon the actual usage of the bandwidth.

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