Vistara will be India’s first airline to have in-flight WiFi, but how does it work?


Full-service carrier Vistara has announced it’ll be the first airline in India to introduce in-flight WiFi. The airline is a joint venture of India’s Tata Group and Singapore Airlines. It’s expected to receive its first Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner aircraft soon and we expect it to start servicing a new route soon.

Access to in-flight WiFi means passengers will be able to browse the internet, use social networking apps, and push emails when on the go. The service has been widely deployed on international carriers but never made it to India up till now.

Why India didn’t support in-flight WiFi, yet:

  • Currently, you cannot access Wi-Fi inside an aeroplane due to security reasons. Even foreign airlines are forced to turn-off connectivity services when in Indian airspace. In 2018, the government introduced Flight and Maritime Connectivity Rules to allow in-flight calling and internet surfing.
  • Thanks to these guidelines, telecom operators can now apply for an operating license from India’s telecom regulator TRAI. Hughes Communications India and Tatanet Services have already bagged the Flight and Maritime Connectivity (IFMC) license. Tatanet is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Nelco Limited. And, Nelco is a subsidiary of the Tata Group.
Picture by Utkarsh Thakkar (@vimanspotter)

But, how are you able to access the internet at 35,000 feet?

  • There are two ways of connecting. One is the normal route of connecting with on-ground antennas and the other one is a bit more complicated. When flying over vast oceans, there are no on-surface antenna’s to communicate with, hence the plane directly connects with satellites.
  • Information is transmitted to and from your smartphone via a radome on the top of the aircraft, which connects to the closest satellite signal. Information is passed between the ground and the plane via the satellite. Wi-Fi signal is distributed to plane passengers via an on-board router.
  • Panasonic Avionics Corporation has partnered with Nelco Limited to provide satellite services in Indian airspace. Vistara will be leveraging this partnership to extend in-flight WiFi services to its passengers.
  • Panasonic boasts that more than 65 airlines and 2,500 aircraft around the world use its satellite connectivity solution. It will be using ISRO’s (Indian Space Research Organisation) GSAT-14 satellite to provide a seamless connection. The indigenous satellite was launched in 2014 and carries essential Ku and C-bands that allow data broadcasting.
The small hump on the top is the radome. Picture by Utkarsh Thakkar (@vimanspotter)

How economical will it be?

  • For Indians, the data rates may be surprisingly steep since we are used to affordable internet connectivity on ground. Telcos like Jio have drastically reduced the cost of bandwidth, taking the average rate per GB to as low as US$ 0.23. Unfortunately, connecting a metal-tube (aircraft) that’s travelling almost 900km/hr at 35,000 feet isn’t going to be cheap.
  • 30MB of bandwidth costs US$ 3.99 (INR 287) on Singapore Airlines while Emirates offers 20MB for free. Airlines usually also package free WiFi access for Business, First, or frequent flyer status holders. It depends from airline to airline. In the end, it’s a premium offering.

What about other Indian carriers?

  • Please note that Vistara’s Boeing 787-9 aircraft is the only one in their fleet to house a radome. All other aircraft currently in service — A320-200, A320neo, and B737-800, do not support in-flight connectivity yet. The airline has also placed an order for the A321neo and these should be equipped with necessary equipment on delivery.
  • IndiGo operates more than 250 aircraft, but none of their aircraft is equipped with a radome. This is because the service is relatively new to the country and the airline follows a low-cost business model. Retro-fitting an aircraft with a radome is an expensive business and requires the plane to be grounded for at least a couple of days. 
Picture by Utkarsh Thakkar (@vimanspotter)
  • The service is still nascent in India and the aviation industry is constantly struggling to make a profit. In a market where even an INR 100 fare difference is a critical decision making factor, airlines need to be as frugal as possible. The same logic also extends to other carriers like GoAir as well.
  • Inmarsat will power the AirAsia India’s fleet of A320s and the installation of equipment for those planes is ongoing. Activating the service requires the ground infrastructure to be online for the GX satellites. This has been delayed, in turn, delaying the process for AirAsia as well as other international carriers.
  • Air India has previously said that it’s evaluating its options and will make a decision based on financial implications. However, it’s doubtful the airline can afford to take up the additional cost of retrofitting its jets. It has a looming debt of more than INR 60,000 crore and the government is actively trying to divest its stake. Amid an uncertain future, it’s not practical for them to make these drastic decisions.
Spicejet’s grounded MAX 8 with a visible radome hump
  • Spicejet was the first low-cost carrier in India to announce its interest in deploying this service. It intended to be the first carrier to provide in-flight access but it’s left with no option but to abandon the plan for the time being. The airline has placed a huge order of Boeing MAX series aircraft and already has 13 of them in storage due to the ongoing grounding. They come equipped with a radome from the factory floor. Whenever the ban on the MAX series is lifted, we’ll have more information about their roll-out plan.

Foreign carriers coming to India are in a better position to offer connectivity since most of them have equipment available and just need to tie-up with a connection provider. India was among a very few sets of countries that didn’t have in-flight connectivity. Thankfully, we’ll soon bridge the gap.