Indian flights were the last phone-free bastion. Not anymore

An expensive affair.
An expensive affair.
Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
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India will finally let passengers use their phones on a flight.

On May 01, the country’s Telecom Commission cleared a proposal for passengers to make mobile internet calls and use data mid-air. The services will be initiated in the next four months, reports quoted telecom secretary Aruna Sundararajan as saying.

Airlines looking to offer such wifi must get a separate licence. The licensing rules may be released by the end of this month, civil aviation secretary Rajiv Nayan Choubey said.

India is the only country, besides North Korea, to bar in-flight data so far. The government had till now cited national security as a reason for not enabling this facility, a reason strongly countered by experts (paywall).

Scores of airlines in countries like the US, Europe, and west Asia already offer in-flight wifi but they had to turn it off upon entering the Indian airspace. State-owned Air India as well as other Indian carriers—Indigo, Vistara, AirAsia, Spicejet—have been offering wifi connectivity on some international routes, but not within India.

The latest approval would create an alternate revenue channel for airlines, even though it might be long before the income from this is substantial enough to make a difference.

“We had suggested to TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) earlier that this service be done in conjunction with licensed service providers for security-related reasons,” Rajan S Mathews, director general of the Cellular Operators Association of India, told Quartz in a statement. He told the Mint newspaper that user volumes may not be too high. Long-haul flights might still see some people avail of the in-flight internet, unlike domestic sprints.

Besides, India may be too late to the game, Mark D Martin, founder of Dubai-based aviation consulting firm Martin Consulting LLC, suggests. “This (technology) is not something new. It has existed for 15 to 20 years; we’re only just catching up to world standards. It’s demeaning for our industry,” Martin told Quartz. “And we were never that far behind on the innovation curve. Back in the day, you could watch live CNBC news on Kingfisher through satellite broadcasting…we had that technology 10 years back.”

Though onboard communication has its advantages, in India, the benefits may be overshadowed by high costs. The airline would have to dole out between $300,000 and $400,000 just to install the system and the job can take a week or more, during which time the plane lies idle. “The aircraft is in the hanger—it’s not flying, not generating revenue,” Martin said. “And the added weight of the system on the aircraft creates a strain on the burn value when flying.”

That’s why these services are expensive. In the US, surfing the web could cost $35 (Rs2,337) for a flight’s worth of surfing. Even if a whole suite of Indian airlines become competitive on this front, how much can they really cut prices? And will Indian consumers choose an airline over another for data connectivity?

Moreover, a service meant to improve the flying experience could, in fact, make it much more excruciating. ”Such technologies work brilliantly in evolved markets. In India, most cell phone users lack cell phone etiquette,” said Martin. ”You’ll have a dozentalking on the phone about trade; the person next to you will have a fight with her boyfriend loudly. It’ll be a pandemonium.”