Internet in sky: Global fliers pay Rs 270 for 10 MB; will Indians pay less?

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Surfing the internet while cruising at 35,000 feet above the ground might sound new and exciting to Indian fliers. But the facility might not be cheap, if international trends are anything to go by.

Business Standard analysed internet charges of 37 of the 53 airlines that provide internet services aboard their flights. On an average, in-flight internet costs 40 cents for every Mega Byte (MB) of usage on board these flights – almost Rs 27 for an MB of internet usage and translates into Rs 270 for 10 MB of data. That is significantly higher than what Indians pay on the ground. Without specific data plans, Indians pay Rs 4 for 10 MB of data while they are on the ground.

According to online travel portal edreams, 53 airlines across the world offered internet services on board. Information regarding in-flight internet pricing was not available for certain airlines like Libyan Airline, Egypt Air, AirItalia and China Eastern Airlines. Some airlines provided free internet on board, with companies like Panasonic, Deutsche Telekom, T-Mobile and On-Air offering internet services without a cost. The biggest and most prominent internet service providers on airlines across the world was Chicago-based Gogo Inc.

Evidently, there seem to be three distinct business models being followed by airlines to charge customers for internet. Customers were being charged for the amount of data used (most often in MB), the time for which they used the internet while on the flight, and in rare instances for the number of miles they used the internet while flying on long-haul flights. Some airlines, especially European and American ones, provided customers with options of either paying for the time they used the internet or the amount of data they used on board.

Tariffs charged for the amount of data economy-class fliers used on board an airplane were the highest for Japan’s All Nippon Airways (ANA). Usage charges were more than a dollar for every MB of data used. That is almost Rs 8,000 for 100 MB of data. The lowest charges for internet usage based on data consumption were for UAE’s national airline Emirates. The airline charges fliers just Rs 444 for 100 MB of data while flying. Surprisingly, internet services in both these airlines were provided by Geneva-headquartered OnAir.

Among airlines that charge fliers on the basis of time, the highest rates according to edreams was on GulfAir, which charged $15 (Rs 1,000) for every hour of internet usage. British Airways charged a similar amount from its fliers for an hour of internet usage on its flights. Meanwhile others like Japan Airlines (JAL) and Turkish Airlines charged almost $10 (Rs 666) for an hour of internet usage. German airline Lufthansa stood out among the airlines offering internet on board by also giving its fliers the option of paying by the distance, especially on long-haul flights. Lufthansa had various packages for its fliers one of which involved charging them $10 (Rs 666) every 3,000 miles.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai), whose recommendations on in-flight internet were approved by the Telecom Commission on Wednesday has been silent on the issue of pricing. Trai’s recommendations state that the in-flight connectivity (IFC) provider would be charged a token licence fee of Re 1 and that there should be no difference in these charges imposed on Indian and foreign airlines operating in Indian airspace. This would mean good news for Indian telecom service providers like Airtel and Reliance Jio, which have already paid billions of rupees to acquire telecom licences and would want to extend their services to fliers. The absence of any additional charges on operators could also translate into cheaper internet charges in Indian airspace.

There are also many unanswered questions on the regulatory framework governing the use of internet in Indian skies. While all companies that provide internet in the skies would be separately categorised as IFC providers, there is little clarity on who will oversee them. Trai’s recommendations do not delve on the issue specifically. But with the requirement that any IFC should tie up with an entity holding a unified licence, it looks likely that internet in Indian skies will also be in the domain of the Ministry of Telecommunications and Information Technology. The recommendations, however, are clear on Indian authorities maintaining a close watch on the activity of people who use the internet on board flights in Indian skies.

Trai’s recommendations state: “The deployment of a gateway in India provides an effective mechanism to lawfully intercept and monitor the in-cabin internet traffic while the aircraft is in Indian airspace. Therefore, the on-board Internet traffic must be routed to a Satellite Gateway on Indian soil.”

Trai has also been silent on how customers will be charged in case their own service provider is also the in-flight connectivity provider. For instance, if a flier has paid money for data packs to Bharti Airtel or Reliance Jio, it would be unfair to expect the flier to pay additional money for internet aboard a plane if the in-flight connectivity provider is also Airtel or Reliance Jio.