The year 2018 is ending on a happy note for Indian telecom users. The government has recently announced rules for in-flight and maritime connectivity (IFMC), which will allow users to make calls and access data while travelling within Indian territory.

According to the rules, Indian and foreign airlines and shipping companies operating in the country can provide in-flight and maritime voice and data services in partnership with a valid Indian telecom licence holder. Network connectivity will be provided using both ground-based telecom networks as well as satellites.

A special category of IFMC licences will be created and permits will be granted against an annual fee of Re 1 for a period of 10 years. However, operators will have to pay a licence fee and spectrum charges on the revenues derived from IFMC services. The fixing of user charges/tariffs has been left with the airlines and service providers. It is also up to them to decide whether they want to offer both internet and calling services or limit themselves to Wi-Fi services. Globally, most airlines prefer only Wi-Fi onboard as mobile calls can be a source of annoyance to fellow travellers.

Earlier in the year, American in-flight internet service provider Gogo had announced that it was setting up a functional centre in Chennai. Geneva-headquartered in-flight mobile service provider Sitaonair has also approached DoT and shown interest in offering services in India.

Besides specialised firms, the government is hopeful that telcos too will get involved in providing such services. It will be interesting to see if cash-strapped operators are able to leverage this opportunity to generate a new revenue stream.

The rules, however, make it mandatory that the IFMC gateways or servers be located in India, a condition that various international airlines were seeking a waiver on. Further, as per the rules, only Indian satellites or those approved by the Department of Space can be utilised.

Globally, IFC services are being provided by over 30 airlines across 40 jurisdictions. Indian companies planning to foray into this space can take a leaf from their experience to evaluate the business case and likely challenges.

As for telecom users, the sky is no longer a limit.