State-run BSNL has applied for inflight connectivity (IFC) licence to offer on-board Wifi and mobile calls in flights.
With this BSNL becomes the third telecom player to apply for IFC licence; earlier Hughes and Tata Telenet had applied. “We hope to get more applications soon", a senior DoT official said. The licence will enable BSNL to be an authorised “in flight and maritime connectivity” (IFMC) service provider.
Looking at the lukewarm response of the top telcos for IFMC, a mobile operator said to remain in competition, eventually every telco will try to offer IFMC, but the high satellite bandwidth charges are likely to dent in the uptake of in-flight mobile services in India, as these would make the facility costlier by 50 times vis-a-vis global tariffs at expectedly $700-1,000 for a two-hour journey. The tariffs will be decided by the telcos.
Telcos rue that the policy is restrictive that only Indian satellites are allowed to provide capacity, making it a monopolistic policy. They said making ISRO as the only agency to provide satellite bandwidth for this service is going to create a monopoly situation. Apart from Indian and foreign airlines, shipping companies also can offer this service.
The officials said the applicants would be allotted spectrum by the ISRO on Ku, Ka and L band of radio waves, usually given for maritime or space related data and voice connectivity. The licence fee is Re 1 but the revenue generated from IFC will be part of the telcos’ or the company's overall telecom service revenues that is subject to 8 per cent licence fee. The eligibility requires mobile access service provider or an ISP category A licence. Any company incorporated under the Companies Act can also apply for authorisation to provide IFMC service by entering into commercial agreements with commercial airlines and TSPs. The IFMC service provider shall provide the operation of mobile communication services in aircraft at minimum height of 3000 meters in the Indian airspace to avoid interference with terrestrial mobile networks and the internet services through Wi-Fi in aircraft shall be made available when electronic devices are permitted to be used only in airplane mode.
"Revenue earned by the partnering licensee from IFMC service providers or by the licensee providing IFMC services, shall be included in the gross revenue of the licensee, for the purpose of license fee and spectrum usage charges", the official said.
Fo BSNL however, it is the best suitable company to apply for in-flight licence because it already operates in the same space of satellite communications and this additional service would also give the cash-strapped PSU the much-needed new lines of revenues in hard time. The PSU, despite being handicapped by several impediments like lack of 4G spectrum, absence of Delhi and Mumbai circles, lots of old and outdated 2G exchanges, has kept date with the technological advancements like 5G , taching tariff offers and new service avenues like Fibre-to-the-Home--Bharat Fibre, Wi-fi calling and now inflight service licence, which has kept it to help remain in the market. Though revenues from these services are not significant, still they supplement its service and product portfolio.
It is expected that big telecom players like Airtel and Jio are keen on entering this space.
As far as Indian carriers are concerned, SpiceJet had said that its Boeing 737 Max is equipped with SatCom that will enable internet onboard services as soon as regulatory and government approvals are in place. In the case of foreign airlines, Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, Qatar Airways and Emirates already have the facility of onboard WiFi but have had to switch them off when their aircraft are in the Indian airspace.