As government eases norms, get set to surf the Net on planes over India
September 18 2016: Remember when broadband in hotels was a rarity? In the last 10 years that has changed and we can expect to find in-room WiFi in all expect the most basic hotels. Many business hotels provide it as a free service, though a few luxury establishments still get away with charging outrageous prices for a day's surfing.
That history is about to repeat -- in civilian aircraft in Indian skies. Some six years after Internet access on aircraft was shown to be technically feasible, the government has finally stirred itself to lift the restrictions on in-flight WiFi. On August 25, Rajeev Chaubey, the Civil Aviation Secretary told members of the Air Passengers Association that "good news" on the airline WiFi front was imminent. We are still waiting for the formal notification that will allow airlines flying in India to offer WiFi Internet to passengers.
Free or fee? There it seems, airlines will traverse the same tortuous path that hotels followed, offering the service free only when forced, kicking and screaming, by customer pressure, to do so. Gogo, a company that specializes in making wireless Internet on flights possible has allowed dozens of airlines to offer the service. By and large they still charge-- and it's a tidy amount: the equivalent of Rs 1000 to Rs 3000 depending on the duration of the flight. Airlines make a neat pile from the service, adding some 25% to the rate charged by the service provider. But not all of them. Some budget airlines abroad , like JetBlue offer it for free. So does a premier airline like Emirates that offers 10 MB of traffic free ( enough to check your mail) and then charges a token one dollar for another 600MB.
Lufthansa has announced it would start offering wireless Internet on all its A320 aircraft from next month -- which also includes its services touching India. Free or fee? We have to wait and see.
Meanwhile, Jet Airways in India has taken the first tentative step in this direction. On some of its trunk routes it has begun wireless streaming of an entertainment package. You have to install the JetScreen mobile app on your phone before boarding and then use it to connect to the plane's data base of some 200 hours of entertainment. You have use your own headphones and own phone or tablet. This seems like really baby steps and remember this is WiFi, but not Internet access -- yet.
Providing Internet access in flight, needs the plane to connect to servers on the ground -- through a satellite. The antenna is a bulbous dome that has to be fitted on the fuselage. And then the airline has to tie up with a service provider like Gogo. Do you see Indian carriers providing the service free once government allows it? I don't. But there is such a thing as competition. If one carrier goes free, others will have to follow. Let's pray for a bold first mover who will let us say: I WiFi while I fly -- for free ! Anand Parthasarathy