Illustration: Jorge de la Paz

Image: Jorge de la Paz

APEX Insight: Navigating China’s notorious Internet firewall requires equal parts diplomatic and technological moxie.

The first e-mail sent from China back in the late 1980s likely reads as prophecy to in-flight connectivity providers today: “Across the Great Wall we can reach every corner of the world.” For airlines outside of China, the great invisible firewall, extending upward of 35,000 feet, has left the fourth-largest country in the world grayed out on global Internet coverage maps – one of the last corners of the world unreached. But the floodgates have opened.

While some Chinese carriers have dabbled with in-flight connectivity trials domestically since as early as 2011, it wasn’t until November last year that China Eastern became the first to launch an international service, using Panasonic Avionics’ eXConnect Ku-band solution, supported by the communications company’s partnership with China Telecom Satellite. The first trial license, deployed on the airline’s Boeing 777-300ER fleet, marked a significant milestone for Chinese carriers with international aims, and also cleared the skies for a second trial license and foreign carriers flying into China’s airspace.

“We had to employ unique global diplomacy that would make everybody happy.” — David Bruner, Panasonic Avionics

For Panasonic, that means more than 20 airline customers and upward of 1,000 aircraft will be able to deliver broadband beyond the Great Wall. “We had to employ unique global diplomacy that would make everybody happy,” says David Bruner, vice-president, Global Communications Services, Panasonic Avionics. Untangling the regulatory web goes all the way back to the 1944 Chicago Convention, which established that aircraft would essentially be recognized as flying embassies.

In practice, it means that a Chinese-registered aircraft must comply with Chinese Internet regulations wherever it flies. So, Gmail, Facebook, Twitter and other blocked sites remain off-limits for all passengers on Chinese carriers.

For foreign carriers flying into China, it’s a little different. “If it’s a Turkish Airlines aircraft, we have to comply with Turkish regulations and also comply, if you’re flying over China, with Chinese regulations,” Bruner says. “They don’t censor or block Internet access for a foreign entity, but there are rules of what you can do.” To enforce the different regulatory parameters, Panasonic uses a special teleport in Beijing with some unique capabilities, including different versions of the same network to differentiate between and handle Internet traffic for foreign and domestic aircraft.

“The floodgates have opened and we are trying to move forward as fast as we can.” — David Bruner, Panasonic Avionics

“It’s a tough situation, but we’ve right now navigated our way through … We do not have any situations today of a foreign carrier that we cannot operate over China,” Bruner says. On the heels of the second trial license, China Eastern committed to equipping 84 total aircraft with Panasonic’s connectivity solution. “The floodgates have opened and we are trying to move forward as fast as we can.”

Among competitors making gains in the market, US-based Internet service provider Gogo announced in August that it has received regulatory approval to offer in-flight connectivity services in China starting in October.

“Flying Over the Great Firewall” was originally published in the October/November issue of APEX Experience magazine. 

Katie is a writer for APEX Media, based in Toronto, Ontario.