No WhatsApp on flights yet as India govt weighs Wi-Fi risks

The home ministry has expressed concern that Wi-Fi on flights may pose a security threat because of difficulty tracking voice and data usage from the air


Jet Airways began offering in September one-way wireless streaming technology that enables passengers to play a selection of video and audio content directly on their mobile phones and other personal devices. Photo: AFP
Jet Airways began offering in September one-way wireless streaming technology that enables passengers to play a selection of video and audio content directly on their mobile phones and other personal devices. Photo: AFP

New Delhi: Indians, the world’s second-biggest Internet users, were told to expect a decision allowing them to update their Facebook status and send WhatsApp messages from 35,000 feet as early as September. Instead, they’ve been kept in a holding pattern because of security concerns.

Delays gaining regulatory approval for Wi-Fi in Indian airspace aren’t dissuading satellite operator Inmarsat Plc, which said it’s talking preemptively to carriers, including Jet Airways India Ltd and the local unit of Singapore Airlines Ltd, about enabling connectivity on their flights.

“We are keeping a very keen eye on movement around the regulatory environment,” said Rash Jhanjee, a director for airline market development for India, Middle East and Africa at Inmarsat, in an interview. “The Indian consumer, the average business user on these planes, is now expecting connectivity on the ground as well as in the air.”

Civil aviation secretary R.N. Choubey said there is “a fairly good chance” permission to operate Wi-Fi in Indian airspace would be given in about 10 days. That was on 24 August, yet officials are no closer to pinpointing a start date. Meantime, all airlines have to disable Wi-Fi access when flying over India, Facebook Inc.’s biggest market—a rule foreign airlines have lobbied to have abolished.

The home ministry has expressed concern that in-flight Wi-Fi may pose a security threat because of difficulty tracking voice and data usage from the air, and others have questioned whether there would be a market for the service in a nation where discounted base fares start at just 2 cents.

Directorate General of Civil Aviation is studying the matter to ensure “all of the considerations are adequately addressed,” Union minister Jayant Sinha said in an 6 October interview. “As soon as that is done, we will issue a statement,” he said, declining to give a time frame for a decision.

The regulator said it’s yet to receive a proposal from the aviation ministry on Wi-Fi usage in Indian airspace.

Jet Airways, India’s second-largest carrier, began offering in September one-way wireless streaming technology that enables passengers to play a selection of video and audio content directly on their mobile phones and other personal devices—a step toward offering broadband-enabled Wi-Fi connectivity following regulatory approval.

Competitive pressure is pushing airlines to match competitors providing cabin connectivity, according to Euroconsult, which said in February that 72 airlines had installed or announced plans to install passenger connectivity systems on board at the end of 2015. Civil aviation officials in China expect restrictions on the use of mobile phones to be lifted by early 2017, paving the way for wider in-flight connectivity.

$5.4 billion market

Paris-based Euroconsult said it expects the number of connected commercial aircraft to reach 23,100, or 62 percent of the global fleet, by 2020, from 5,300 last year. Revenue from passenger connectivity services will approach $5.4 billion by 2025, from $700 million in 2015, it said.

“Having a service like Internet on board an aircraft should not be considered as a luxury,” said Mark D. Martin, founder of Dubai-based aviation adviser Martin Consulting LLC, in an interview. “The Internet today is an imperative. You need to know what’s going on around the world. You have to be in touch, you have to be connected.”

He said airlines should weigh the costs though. Passengers in India pay just $10.36 for every 100km flown, the cheapest in the world, and the Indian regulator has a history of intervening when extra fees are introduced.

Viability question

Installing Wi-Fi can take about 13 days for a typical low-cost Indian airline flying an Airbus A320 jet, cost Rs.29 million, and result in a loss of Rs.184 million in revenue, according to Martin’s analysis. That would mean a total cost of Rs.26.4 billion for the fleet of IndiGo, the nation’s biggest carrier, and Rs.5.8 billion for SpiceJet Ltd, the nation’s second-largest budget airline, Martin said.

“It’s going to be extremely difficult to recover the investment that you need to make for this to be available in an entire fleet,” he said.

IndiGo declined to comment, an external spokeswoman for the company said in a text message. SpiceJet didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Free service

“The demand will be quite good if it’s free,” said Sanjiv Kapoor, chief operating officer of Vistara, a joint venture between Singapore Airlines Ltd and Tata Sons Ltd. The company, which already provides in-flight wireless streaming of pre-loaded content to customers’ personal electronic devices, is assessing the viability of full Internet connectivity—a service it assumes customers won’t pay for.

With about 462 million people browsing the web in India, the nation is home to 13.5% of the world’s total Internet users, making it the second-biggest user base in the world, according to Internet Live Stats, which tracks Internet usage.

Given a choice, as many as 86% of Indian air travelers would prefer to fly with a carrier that offers Internet connectivity, according to a survey Inmarsat did in May. Two in every three said they would pay more for faster in-flight Wi-Fi.

“A time will come when airlines will provide this as a service,” Choubey, India’s civil aviation secretary, said at an industry event in New Delhi on 24 August. Connectivity will differentiate one airline from another, he said. Bloomberg

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