Wi-Fi Invades the Car?

...except for some hotels, I have not been asked to pay for a Wi-Fi connection in the past two years. But that is what Audi and T-Mobile apparently expect us to do. At the time of purchase of the car, you can pay an additional $450 and get 30 months of Wi-Fi in your car, fed by T-Mobile’s 4G network.

Wi-Fi access points are everywhere today, or so it seems. AT&T reports a record-breaking number of users on its Wi-Fi system, as well as record-setting data usage. Access points have almost become as common in homes as computers and TVs, and your smartphones and tablets can now become Wi-Fi hotspots you can share with friends and co-workers if your device is connected to a commercial network’s 3G or 4G network.

Wi-Fi is in coffee shops, McDonalds, and many other places and today it is free. Not too long ago some companies thought there was financial reward to be had by installing Wi-Fi and then reselling it to customers. This is no longer true and except for some hotels, I have not been asked to pay for a Wi-Fi connection in the past two years. So why would I pay to have a Wi-Fi connection in my car?

But that is what Audi and T-Mobile apparently expect us to do. At the time of purchase of the car, you can pay an additional $450 and get 30 months of Wi-Fi in your car, fed by T-Mobile’s 4G network. Or, if you want, you can pay nothing upfront and a monthly fee of $30. But if I have an iPhone or other smartphone or tablet that is connected to any of the 3G or 4G networks, I can set it in hotspot mode and accomplish the same thing. This has to be one of those ideas hatched my marketing folks (no, I don’t have anything against marketing folks) and not thought-out, tested, or run by the public to measure interest.

First I have to ask myself why I would want Wi-Fi in my car to begin with. So far I have come up with a couple of reasons. The first is that I might drive a carpool to and from work and it might be a nice perk to offer the passengers, but most of them have smartphones and plans with wide-area networks. Some may have tablets with Wi-Fi onboard, in which case it might be neat to give them access to the Internet on the drive.

If I took younger kids from place to place, perhaps I would want Wi-Fi in the car to save on their wireless bills for streaming video and game playing, but texting today is unlimited and free so unless I am taking the kids on a vacation and looking for a way to keep them occupied, I am not at all sure that an extra $30 per month over and above my existing wireless bills is something I would be very excited about.

In fact, the trend for wireless in vehicles seems to be going in the exact opposite direction. Several years ago I wrote an article about what I wanted from my wireless device and my car. Some of the things I asked for were:

1)     When I get into my car it recognizes me, adjusts the seats, mirrors, temperature, and sets the radio to my favorite channel at just the right volume level.

2)     If it is commute time, the car knows I am headed for work, sets the onboard navigation and traffic monitoring system, and warns me of any delays.

3)     When I leave the car, the phone locks the doors for me.

Some of this is already being done, and I know a lot of people who use their smartphones and tablets for navigation instead of paying the $2500 for an onboard system. I always thought it would be great to have a touchscreen in the car that my wireless device could talk to. The only obstacle I have seen so far with using a smartphone or tablet in the car is the battery life, and having to plug it into the accessory power plug (cigarette lighter) is a hassle, but strides are being made in charging, too, so that should not be a problem for much longer.

The major problem with building things into cars is the fact that cars tend to be owned for many years and technologies change. Look what happened to OnStar. It had analog phones installed in a lot of vehicles. When analog cellular was cancelled and 2G and 3G systems came online, the upgrade prices I heard quoted by the auto dealers were in the area of $500 to $600 per car. Obviously, that did not work well for customer retention for OnStar. Building technology into vehicles also takes time for the automobile maker to decide which technology, which partner, and more. Perhaps the best-known partnership success today is Ford and Microsoft but that does NOT include wireless built into the car. Rather, it provides syncing between wireless devices and the car, and it still has onboard navigation in the car.

So in this case I think that the T-Mobile/Audi relationship will not be well received, at least in the United States. In Europe where Wi-Fi is still plentiful but, in many cases, customers have to pay to use it, perhaps it will be more of a success, but my bottom line feeling here is that this was not well thought-out, not well-structured, and does not offer any really bargain when it comes to Wi-Fi services.

I am sure that the people at both companies who worked so hard on this project believe that it is a win-win. That is, for T-Mobile it would add car subscriptions to its wide-area network and to Audi perhaps the believe that it will be one more reason a potential customer would buy an Audi. I don’t think either will occur and instead, by the end of the first model year, the results will cause a re-thinking of this relationship. Perhaps if they work on future versions of in-vehicle wireless, they might hit on something that will prove to be a must-have for drivers, but this is not it!

Andrew Seybold


2 Comments on “Wi-Fi Invades the Car?”

  1. billschrier says:

    Good blog post. Coincidentally, I blogged earlier this week about extending these vehicle networks – wi-fi as you mention above – to the wider internet and even interacting with other vehicles and intelligent transportation systems. The result could be a virtual end to traffic accidents, speeding tickets, insurance adjusters and more –

  2. Bill Brown says:

    Gents, The irony of the article and bill’s comment is that the proposed expansion by the FCC of wi-fi into additional 5 GHZ frequencies will possibly/probably hinder or render ineffective the very connected vehicle technology that could greatly reduce life-altering accidents. Digital Short Range Communications (DSRC) was authorized in 1999 for vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure in the 5.850 – 5.925 GHz band, previously used by about one hundred federal aviation radar sites. The FCC’s plan to open the same 5.85 – 5.925 GHz band to tens of thousands of unlicensed wi-fi devices, operating with very wide bandwidth to achieve “giga wi-fi” throughput could smother the 10 MHz slots set up in the channel plan for DSRC Connected Vehicles.

    Next-to-zero latency communications is required in dedicated communications systems to achieve the split second messaging between cars and cars-roadside-cars necessary for collision avoidance. Normal delays common in wi-fi networks would be totally impractical and often worthless in such a critical, time-sensitive environment as collision avoidance. Someone sitting at a cloverleaf family restaurant eating pancakes and video streaming the previous night’s hockey highlights using the planned wideband 5.9 GHz channels on the FCC Commissioner’s proposed giga wi-fi could easily block the DSRC roadside device directly underneath him from receiving the emergency alert of dense fog ahead or vehicles suddenly stopped on the interstate. Now, if we start adding new wi-fi actually ON BOARD cars using the very same 5.9 GHz band as the onboard vehicle to vehicle equipment is using?

    Literally hundreds of millions of dollars have gone into the development of connected vehicle research and standards development by governments and auto manufacturers. Testing of several thousand vehicles by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute is ongoing with an expected decision on the future of the program later this year by the US DOT. At the last minute will the FCC’s decisions effectively kill the ability of the program anyway? With the FCC’s proposed expanded wi-fi they may be creating another Light Squared.

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