The fear of cyber attacks on planes is holding back the Indian government from allowing Wi-Fi on board aircraft, however, private players say the security framework sought by authorities is neither impossible nor unusual. This explains why a top officer at the civil aviation ministry, which mooted the proposal, recently expressed his frustration over the delay by the home ministry in giving its nod and compared India with North Korea. “India is perhaps the only country other than North Korea, which does not allow in-flight Wi-Fi services. Even international airlines flying over India have to switch off Wi-Fi when they travel over India…security agencies are still not convinced,” he said. Before airlines in India can be permitted to provide Wi- Fi, the pre-requisite laid down by the government is for intercept capability to which Indian authorities have end-to- end audit and control.
“From our perspective this is not very different from what we see at many jurisdictions where cyber security or use of information technology for malicious purpose is an area of concern. The Indian government has demanded a framework at par with international standards. These are solutions that are neither unseen nor unimplemented,” CEO, SITAONAIR, David Lavorel.
In order to get a first hand experience of how Wi-Fi is enabled on a plane, PTI recently travelled onboard Honeywell’s Connected Aircraft, which was in New Delhi last week as part of its world tour. Since May this year it has travelled to Dallas, Mexico City, Panama City, Toronto, New York, London and Paris.
For in-flight Wi-Fi, Honeywell’s satellite communications hardware is fitted on the aircraft so it can receive true broadband class connectivity via Inmarsat satellites, whose Global Xpress Service is powered by three Ka-band satellites and claim to provide four times the bandwidth available through Ku-band. The hardware includes an antenna on an aircraft. Inside the aircraft there are three boxes, the size of a set-top-box, which include a KA-band frequency unit, KA-band aircraft network data unit and a modem manager. “No one can hack into this network unless you are given access to this frequency. As far as the boxes are concerned no one can tap into them because there are security communication protocols. However, concerns emerge when you have access to Internet,” explains Inmarsat’s Director, Airline Market Development for India, Middle East and Africa, Rash Jhanjee.
Connectivity inside an aircraft can also be provided through air-to-ground communications network, which is more suitable for high-density domestic market. However, experts say India does not currently have such a facility.”Air-to-ground and satellite connectivity for aircraft complement each other. In certain high density markets where there are single-aisle narrow body aircraft which fly on shorter routes, it makes more economic sense to deploy an air-to-ground network because these cost less and weigh less,” Jhanjee told PTI.Satellite communications however offer bandwidth speeds that are consistently higher on a global level. Additionally, the satellite equipment is well proven and designed to fit on a variety of aircraft, while air-to-ground system is more suited for narrow bodies, Jhanjee added.
Both Inmarsat and SITAONAIR have been in discussions with various government ministries, which include those of civil aviation, home as well as the department of telecom. But who pays for this service? Generally, the costs are borne by the satellite operators, which are passed on to airline companies that require the service, who will further bill it to the passengers. The main aim of the game is to fill up the entire seating capacity and look for an opportunity for monetisation, says Lavorel. He adds that several foreign airlines, which have to switch off their Wi-Fi while flying over India, feel they are at a “competitive disadvantage” as compared to those who take a different route. Both Inmarsat and SITAONAIR say all domestic carriers in India have evinced interest in having Wi-Fi onboard but are exploring a suitable financial model for providing connectivity to passengers.
“The low-cost carriers see this as additional ancillary revenue. Just like they unbundle seats or food they see this as another catchment area. The full service carriers, though, are looking at providing free Internet for business class and maybe some free module in economy,” according to Jhanjee. It makes immense business sense for airline companies to cater to the need of millennials to stay connected all the time. A passenger survey carried out by Honeywell Aerospace in the US last year revealed that nearly 45 per cent of air travellers were willing to shift their loyalties if their preferred airline did not provide Wi-Fi.
With high speed Internet, air passengers will be able to discard the in-flight entertainment preloaded on aircraft and stream movies, send WhatsApp messages, as well as check information about connecting gates, among others. Honeywell estimates the market for Wi-Fi on planes to be at USD 7 billion and expects 25,000 planes to be connected by 2025.