Wi-Fi for your Car, Truck, or MPV

By Jeff Goldman

January 07, 2009

Can't afford a new car? Bring your new one up to speed, instead. ISP, Autonet Mobile, says it can upgrade any vehicle to include an in-car Wi-Fi hotspot--"even a '92 Honda Accord." Great for families, road warriors, or "urban trendsetters."

Can't afford a new car? Bring your new one up to speed, instead. ISP, Autonet Mobile, says it can upgrade any vehicle to include an in-car Wi-Fi hotspot--"even a '92 Honda Accord." Great for families, road warriors, or "urban trendsetters."


The San Francisco-based Internet service provider Autonet Mobile serves a slightly different target market from the average ISP—cars. The company’s router creates a Wi-Fi hotspot in and around the vehicle in which it’s installed—and even in the face of a significant economic downturn, company CEO Sterling Pratz is optimistic about Autonet’s future.

From the beginning, Pratz says, Autonet’s aim has simply been to extend the home Internet experience to the car. “We really felt like the car was the last bastion of connectivity for the Internet,” he says. “And we also felt that once you put the Internet into the car, a whole new ecosystem of applications and services and products would form.”

And Pratz says the range of devices already being used on the system is impressive. “We’re seeing not just laptops and mini-PCs… we’re also seeing iPod touches streaming Internet radio into the front seat—mostly FlyCast and Pandora… and in the back seat, we’re seeing a lot of Facebook, a lot of social networking, Yahoo! Messenger, and a lot of Google Earth,” he says.

Autonet breaks down usage, Pratz says, by the vehicles in which the system is deployed, which translates well into basic demographics: while minivans usually mean families using everything from Sony PSPs to cameras with Eye-Fi cards, pickup trucks tend to be small business owners using Autonet to set up a hotspot both within the truck itself and at a work location.

There’s also a third key user group, which Pratz calls urban trendsetters. “It’s usually a couple inside the car—there’s someone in the passenger seat, and they’re using it for e-mail, they’re using it for social networking… and they go to Citysearch, they go to Fandango for movie previews and movie times—they’re doing things to help them make plans while they’re on the move,” he says.

A growing market

Autonet sells exclusively through dealers—the company provides the system behind Chrysler’s uconnect web in-car Wi-Fi offering, and also sells its equipment through more than 300 independent dealers nationwide, including chains like Al & Ed’s Autosound. “We’re seeing a pretty wide variety of dealers, and it grows every day,” Pratz says.

There have been some bumps in the road: Avis recently cancelled its Autonet-supported Avis Connect in-car Wi-Fi offering “because of the growing number of airports, hotels and other retail locations that offer Wi-Fi connectivity, the popularity of wireless AirCards and the easy availability of the Internet using cell phones and other PDAs,” according to Avis spokesperson Alice Pereira.

Still, Pratz says every other aspect of the market for Autonet is growing—the company added more than 3,000 new users last year, and expects to triple that number in 2009. “The number of sedans is really growing… as people are getting out of their big SUVs and into smaller cars,” he says.

In fact, Pratz says, about 40 percent of Autonet’s sales are for a vehicle the customer already owns, not for a new car. “Especially in this economy, where people are not buying as many vehicles and they’re not traveling as much, they’re looking for things like this to upgrade what they have,” he says. “And it’s an easy upgrade: it’ll turn a ’92 Honda Accord into a Wi-Fi hotspot.”

A new kind of multi-tasking

After paying a flat fee (MSRP is $499) for the Autonet router, two monthly service plans are available: 1GB per month for $29, or 5GB per month for $59. Pratz says the 1GB plan is more than enough for the vast majority of the company’s customers—the key market for the 5GB plan, he says, generally seems to be RV owners.

For access, Autonet uses Verizon Wireless’ network, with download speeds ranging from 400 to 800 Mbps. Pratz says most users are very happy with those speeds, and are surprisingly comfortable with the idea of categorizing their Internet usage as necessary. “Customers are far more advanced on the criteria of when to use big pipe Internet requirements than one would think,” he says.

The point is that in-car usage, Pratz says, tends to be focused on lower-bandwidth activities like social networking, looking up restaurants and movie times, checking e-mail, and doing schoolwork. “When they get into things like [downloading] movies, they tend to know to do that at home or in a hotel room… and if they want to watch a movie [in the car], they’ll just put a DVD into the laptop they have with them,” he says.

And Pratz says Autonet’s users are really just beginning to find out how useful in-car Wi-Fi access can be. “The first thing the customer says is, ‘Wow: I didn’t know that was possible’… and then they start thinking about how they’ll use it,” he says. “As our customers come online, they start using Autonet more and more every day.”

Jeff Goldman is a freelance writer and photographer based in Southern California. 


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