NEW DELHI: Each time you board an aircraft to fly in India — or even overfly the country — you are journeying back in time. An iron curtain prohibits flyers in Indian airspace from enjoying Wi-Fi connectivity. While international flyers can log on to the net as soon as they are out of Indian airspace, desi ones can do so only before takeoff and after landing.
National carrier Air India stumbled on this archaic — but still in vogue — rule while preparing to have Wi-Fi on its aircraft. A team of senior officials recently met officials of Geneva-based OnAir, which provides both internet and mobile connectivity to almost 30 top airlines globally like British Airways, Emirates, Etihad, Singapore Airlines and Thai.
“We were shown a real time presentation of aircraft in air using Wi-Fi and/or mobile connectivity. All planes over India were shown in red, meaning they had neither of these two connections. We were told that India does not allow these two things in air and so even planes of foreign airlines equipped with Wi-Fi and/or mobile connectivity have to switch their systems off, while flying over the country,” said a senior AI official. The airline was told that some private and foreign airlines had in the past sought permission to use Wi-Fi over Indian airspace but were not given the same.
The AI team was dejected by the discovery of this stumbling block on providing internet on its aircraft. Installing the onboard systems and providing the satellite-to-ground support was neither too expensive, nor a big technical challenge. But, being the national carrier of India, it did not make sense to opt for a technology that can be used only over foreign airspace and not on desi one.
“We are going to request the government to lift the ban on Wi-Fi in air and soon start a formal process with both the home and telecom ministry. Such a ban does not make sense when advanced countries actually take pride in ensuring flyers over their airspace remain connected all the time. Being a government company, we hope to get this ban lifted on our request. However, that process may take time and out plan of having internet in air is now delayed till that happens,” said an official.
In fact, “no Wi-Fi” is not the only Stone Age rule in the air here. India allows use of personal electronic devices only during cruise phase, while DGCA rules prohibit switching on mobiles at all times inside an aircraft till it has landed and taxied off the active runway.
On the other hand, US and Europe have from January allowed their airlines to let passengers use personal electronic devices (PED) — including smartphones in aeroplane mode — in all durations of a flight. While they junked old fears that radio signals from PEDs can interfere with an aircraft’s communications, navigation and other electronic systems, India still clings on to them.
DGCA’s civil aviation requirement 3.1 clearly says: “No person shall use any electronic device, which intentionally transmits radio signals like mobile/cellular phones, amateur radio transceivers, etc at all times while on board an aircraft for the purpose of flight.” It also cites a corresponding rule in Aircraft rule (29 B): “No person shall operate, nor shall the operator or the pilot-in-command of an aircraft allow the operation of any portable electronic device on board an aircraft in flight.”
Installing the onboard systems and providing the satellite-to-ground support is neither too expensive, nor a big technical challenge
Being the national carrier, it does not make sense for Air India to opt for a technology that can be used only over foreign airspace
“We are going to request the government to lift the ban on Wi-Fi in air and soon start a formal process with both the home and telecom ministries,” said an AI official