Sky Connect: TRAI’s recommendations on providing in-flight telecom services

TRAI’s recommendations on providing in-flight telecom services

Indian telecom has breached yet another frontier of connectivity. Air travellers in the country will soon be able to make calls and access the internet on board a flight. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has recommended that in-flight connectivity (IFC) can be permitted 3,000 metres above the ground on domestic and foreign airlines.

Given the exponential growth in smart devices and people’s need to be constantly connected, domestic airlines had approached TRAI to allow in-flight telecom connectivity. While the regulator had earlier expressed concerns over potential interference to safetycritical aircraft systems and terrestrial wireless networks, it finally gave its assent and issued recommendations on providing IFC services while ensuring safety.

Globally, IFC services were introduced about a decade ago, and now 30 airlines including AirAsia, Air France, British Airways, Emirates, Qatar Airways and Virgin Atlantic have been allowed to provide IFC services  in more than 40 jurisdictions. To provide this service, the airlines work in tandem with telecom operators, internet service companies, satellite companies and technology solutions providers. There are two components of IFC – mobile services and internet access.

How is IFC provided?

There are two ways to provide IFC – through the mobile satellite system or aeronautical mobile-satellite service (AMSS), and the air-to-ground system.

To use the satellite service, a mobile earth station is installed in the aircraft to establish a backhaul link with the ground. When combined with on-board access technology (Wi-Fi or mobile network), AMSS allows passengers to use the internet or make calls. This is the only way of providing IFC services in airlines taking transoceanic routes, or flying closer to the polar region as cellular towers cannot be installed on these routes. AMSS networks are composed of three segments:

  • Space segment: This consists of satellite systems such as Inmarsat that are typically located in the geostationary orbit more than 35,000 km above the equator. Frequencies used by satellites are in the L-band (1-2 GHz), C-band (4-8 GHz), Ku-band (12-18 GHz) and Ka-band (27-40 GHz). The L-band is  slow with a maximum speed of 422 kbps per channel per airplane. The Ku-band provides 20-40 Mbps per airplane. The speeds depend on the number of airplanes in the satellite’s transponder “footprint”, also known as the spot beam. Meanwhile, the Ka-band, with speeds of 30-50 Mbps, is gaining popularity as more and more companies like Inmarsat and ViaSat offer this band for aviation needs.
    A modern satellite has dozens of transponders to support a large number of simultaneous connections such as ships, airplanes and portable ground terminals. Leasing transponders on satellites is very expensive, and this cost is usually borne by the airline, which passes it on to the passengers. However, US-based airline JetBlue offers it for free.
  •  Aircraft earth station: In this segment, telecom equipment  is installed on the fuselage (such as antenna and VSAT equipment), or inside the aircraft (such as Wi-Fi access points). The aircraft earth station provides non-safety-related broadband data communication services such as the internet to users on board. These services do not interfere with the communication between the aircraft traffic controllers and crew on board.
  •  Ground earth segment: This comprises the hub/earth station for the telecom network, which controls the remote earth stations and hosts the network operation centre.

In the air-to-ground system, a ground-based mobile broadband network provides a cellular backhaul to the aircraft. The on-board equipment includes one or two small antennas mounted below the fuselage, along with a compact and low-weight transceiver unit, acting as a hub or ground interface. The ground-based mobile broadband network sends signals to the aircraft’s antennas. The aircraft connects to the nearest ground-based tower, just like a home or office network connects to the base transceiver station, as it travels through different sections of airspace, with no interruptions except when the aircraft is passing over large waterbodies.

For providing in-flight connectivity several different types of service providers are involved. It is important to understand the role of each of these.

The backhaul link providers connect the aircraft and terrestrial networks to transmit data, generally through satellites, while the terrestrial mobile or internet service providers handle traffic on the ground. The third category is of in-flight service providers. They provide internet and other mobile communication services on the aircraft through tie-ups with satellite bandwidth providers and telecom service providers. Globally, airlines tie up with IFC service providers to provide mobile services to their passengers. The companies currently operating in this space include Panasonic  Avionics’ Global Communications Services, Global Eagle, Onair, AeroMobile and Gogo.

In India, satellite backhaul link providers and terrestrial mobile/internet service providers are already licensed. However, TRAI has proposed that a separate category of “IFC service provider” should be created to permit IFC services in the Indian airspace for airlines registered in India. Moreover, an IFC service provider should enter into an arrangement with a unified licensee having proper authorisation, such as Vodafone and Idea for access services and Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited and Bharti Airtel for access services as well as internet service.

While the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) welcomed this move to allow IFC on board, it did not support the creation of a new licence category. As per the association, current access service licensees such as providers of cellular mobile telephone service, unified access service and unified licence (all services) are suitable for providing IFC services.

The second point of contention is regarding the regulator’s suggestion to use the airwaves currently being used for satellite services – L, C, Ku and Ka – for providing IFC services. COAI feels that IFC services should be permitted only over the licensed spectrum, or bandwidth that is currently being used for mobile phone services, while maintaining the principles of spectrum and technology neutrality and providing a level playing field.

Despite the concerns of telecom service providers, US-based in-flight internet company Gogo, which is currently providing broadband connectivity to 19 airlines worldwide, is setting up a technology development centre in Chennai that is expected to be fully operational by March 2018. Another IFC provider, Honeywell Aerospace, in collaboration with Inmarsat, is looking to provide its service in India once IFC is permitted in the country.

Over the past two years, domestic telecom companies and airlines have individually collaborated with satellite companies and solution providers for various services, which can now be leveraged for IFC. Cases in point are Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) and Jet Airways. For BSNL, the satellite phone partnership signed with Inmarsat last year is almost tailor-made to the IFC service provider specifications recommended by TRAI. BSNL holds a unified licence with the required authorisations and Inmarsat already provides IFC on both the L-Band as well as the Ka-band.

Although Jet Airways does not have IFC on its domestic flights, in 2016, it partnered with GlobalEagle Entertainment for Ku-band internet connectivity for global operations. This arrangement can be quickly extended to domestic operations once the policy is announced.

TRAI, in its recommendations, describes in detail the process and modalities of providing IFC service, with emphasis on the safety and security of aircraft systems. Although telecom service operators have welcomed the proposal to allow IFC in India, they are not in agreement with some of TRAI’s recommendations. What gives them hope is that this is not the final word on IFC as the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) will consider the recommendations and formulate a policy based on them.