Image: Cadillac Wi-Fi router
GM
Some Cadillac and Chrysler dealers are selling Wi-Fi routers as an add-on for vehicles. The cost is $499 for the router, plus a monthly service fee for Internet access.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/1/2009 8:39:49 AM ET 2009-06-01T12:39:49

Just as radios evolved from hulking home consoles into expected accessories in virtually all cars, so may Wi-Fi Internet access break free to become a commonplace automotive feature. That’s the hope of Autonet Mobile, a company that supplies in-car Wi-Fi routers that let passengers use laptops and other mobile devices in their vehicles.

By 2016, consumers will consider such Internet connectivity as important as traditional features such as safety and fuel economy, said Thilo Koslowski, vice president of the Automotive Manufacturing Industry Advisory Service at market researcher Gartner, Inc.

Autonet Mobile sells its $499 routers through Chrysler and Cadillac dealers as manufacturer-endorsed, dealer-installed options for those cars, branded as Uconnect Web and Cadillac Wi-Fi, respectively. Its routers can also be added to any car after a vehicle is purchased.

Potential customers were skeptical of Wi-Fi in vehicles, but have recently become more in favor of the idea, according to Autonet Mobile CEO Sterling Pratz. With the stamp of approval from car makers, Autonet Mobile’s sales have grown 50 percent every month since November, he said.

However, even with that kind of growth, Pratz would characterize the company’s customer base as numbering “in the thousands.” He said 90 percent of consumers surveyed in a company poll said they would rather have Internet access in their cars than have DVD video players.

In addition to buying the router, a 20-minute installation to place it in the trunk of a vehicle should cost another $35-$50 depending on the shop, Autonet Mobile says. The monthly 3G data service costs $29, with a $35 activation fee. More than half of consumers say they would like Internet access in their cars, compared to only 16 percent who thought it was a good idea a few years ago, Pratz said.

Hands on the wheel
If Web surfing from behind the wheel sounds like a bad idea, that is because it is a bad idea. But drivers can benefit from Wi-Fi access as a way of receiving Internet radio, which can be streamed to the car through devices such as Apple’s iPod touch, Pratz said.

Drivers can also use Internet-based MapQuest to route them to their destinations, and business users can access the Web to do chores like sending sales orders after visiting customers.

But the real plus of having a Wi-Fi router in the car is for passengers who can access the Internet to watch YouTube videos, connect to social networks, instant-message friends and play games using any Wi-Fi-enabled device. Netbooks and the iPod touch are some of the most popular mobile devices Autonet Mobile customers are using, but the Sony PSP and Nintendo GameBoy portable game systems and even the Nintendo Wii game console are popular devices, he said.

Uconnect Web "has been well received at the dealerships,” said Jennifer Applebee, senior manager connectivity and infotainment strategy for Chrysler LLC. “We’re finding a lot of people are enjoying having it, especially people with kids.”

Chrysler’s experience so far has been sufficiently successful that the company is examining the potential benefits of factory-installing the router rather than having it done at the dealer, she said. The company is also eyeing a push for the technology for its Ram pickup for customers who could use Wi-Fi to work from job sites, she added.

Cadillac, meanwhile, is just now rolling out the service through its dealers, said John Howell, global product director for Cadillac.

“Too early for us to judge" its success, he said. “It has the potential to be a big thing going forward. It could be really ubiquitous, but it depends on what the evolution of portable devices is.”

Data speed comparable to 3G
It’s possible to have mobile Internet access in the car and everywhere else either through a mobile phone with data service or using a laptop that has a cellular modem card and Internet service. But Autonet Mobile says that data doesn’t stream as smoothly over those services as it does using the company's system which is optimized to maintain continuous contact as service is handed off from one cell tower to another.

That makes watching videos and listening to Internet radio much more pleasant, Pratz said. And, of course, having Internet access on those cellular devices does not extend that connection to other users and their devices like the game systems.

Data speeds are similar to those of other 3G cellular devices, running between 800 kilobits and 1.2 megabits per second. Among Autonet Mobile customers, the company says it is seeing 2.7 average users per car. That sounds higher than the typical number of occupants in the average car, but it may be that drivers who have Wi-Fi in their cars are carpool drivers or families with children.

Cell coverage for Autonet’s network includes 95 percent of U.S. highways, so customers can expect to have a signal most of the time, according to Pratz.

The Autonet Mobile router supports the same kinds of security customers use on their home and office routers such as WEP encryption, MAC address restriction or WAN ports restriction, and it supports VPN use so that customers can connect to their secure work network while in the car. “It is safe enough to do banking on,” said Pratz.

That kind of security is important for a device with a broadcast range of up to 150 feet from the car, a range that makes it possible to use the connection from inside a hotel room or restaurant, but also makes it easier for others to access as well.

Another entertainment means for kids
Certainly the prospect of productive passengers busily checking e-mail or gathering needed information while driving to work or to meetings, and that of kids in the back seat occupied with YouTube videos, Facebook, MySpace, Webkinz and games sounds plenty attractive, said Doug VanDagans, Ford’s director of connected services solutions organization.

VanDagans, who said he has examined Autonet Mobile’s technology, questions the number of customers who would be willing to pay for the router hardware and the $29 monthly data fee on top of the cost of the mobile voice and data plans they may already have.

Ford’s Sync technology, developed with Microsoft, gives drivers access to data over their cell phone’s voice connection, letting them listen to Pandora Internet radio through the car’s stereo without any additional hardware or data fees, VanDagan said. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

“The router in the car has some advantages,” he said. “The question is how many people are going to be willing to pay for an incremental plan. Are you already going to have enough connectivity though other devices?”

That is also Koslowski’s criticism. “I don’t think at the current price point there is a big value proposition,” he said. “Consumers will have Internet access with their mobile devices, so having a separate data subscription plan that is limited to just the car is a hard sell.”

To mitigate concerns that the Autonet Mobile router is only usable in the car where it is installed, Chrysler is considering an optional installation that would let customers dock the router in different vehicles, increasing the availability of the system beyond a single car.

Whether in-car router technology or another one will eventually prevail with consumers remains to be seen. “There is always something new coming out,” said Applebee, “so we’ll have to wait and see.”

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