When Stephen Devine drove with his family from their home in Massachusetts to New York City, he spent two frustrating hours trying to find a place to park his 9-foot-high camper van, which won't fit in most garages. In the end, his 17-year-old daughter found a place to park online — and she didn't even have to leave the van to do it.
Devine's van is equipped with TracNet, a system that allows passengers to access the Internet on a vehicle's video screens. Launched in September by Middletown, R.I.-based KVH Industries Inc., TracNet brings the Internet to the installed screens in a car, truck, RV or boat. It also turns the entire vehicle into a wireless hot spot, so passengers can use their laptops to go online.
Devine — who also purchased KVH's satellite TV system, called TracVision, when he bought his camper a month ago — said the value of in-vehicle Internet became obvious at that moment in New York.
"For me, that just paid for itself, because I was five minutes away from going home," said Devine, of Hanover, Mass.
KVH also makes TracVision, which provides satellite TV service in vehicles and boats; TracPhone, a satellite communications service for boats; and precision navigation and guidance systems for the military. The company had 2005 revenue of $71.3 million, including $49 million in mobile satellite sales.
While TracNet is still very new, KVH spokesman Chris Watson said there has been interest from owners of recreational vehicles and boats. He also predicted the service would be a hit with car services, which see it as a way to provide a new convenience for customers.
But KVH believes the demand has the potential to be much wider. Watson cited research by J.D. Power and Associates which found that more than half of full-size sport utility vehicles, 40 percent of luxury SUVs and 40 percent of minivans now come with video screens.
"Once a video screen shows up, people have a preference for live content," Watson said.
Art Spinella, president of Bandon, Ore.-based CNW Marketing Research, which specializes in the auto sector, agreed.
"A large percentage of folks under 40 would like to have in-car access to the Internet, rather than just on their cell phone or BlackBerry," he said. "If it's priced right, there's a market."
The current price is $1,995 for the automotive version of TracNet. The system operates on Verizon Wireless' high-speed network, which costs another $60 to $80 a month. There is also a $10 monthly charge for MSN TV, the service from Microsoft Corp. that brings the Internet to TV screens. The consumer provides the screens.
An MSN TV portal provides access to e-mail, instant messaging, weather maps, chat rooms, news and other features. While Web sites outside of the portal are fully accessible, most are not formatted correctly for TV screens and may not look quite right, even though the content is all there. Another limitation is the system's dependance on the Verizon network: Where there is no cell phone service, there won't be any Internet access either.
As with TracVision, TracNet can be used on a screen visible to the driver only when the car is in park. When the vehicle is in motion, that screen automatically switches to navigation.
Devine, 48, purchased TracNet for his camper van with both personal and business uses in mind. He heads an architecture and construction management firm and plans to put the camper at a job site for a contractor to live out of.
"If he wanted to go online and e-mail us or look up some information," the contractor would be able to use the TracNet system to do it, Devine said.
Robert Ramsden, of Key Largo, Fla., said he purchased TracNet for his boat as a way to let him cruise more and still manage his business. The 67-year-old and his wife own four Intelligent Office franchises, which provide "virtual office" services to businesses.
Previously, if the couple wanted Internet access on their boat, they would have to pull into a marina and hope it had wireless access. TracNet has made that unnecessary.
"It works really well," Ramsden said. "My wife and I both could be on the boat with our laptops, and just log in, and use the wireless capabilities of it."
But Ramsden said the idea of mobile Internet in a car wouldn't hold much appeal for him.
"Our car is what we go back and forth to work in," he said.