Your In-Car Hotspot

By Eric Griffith

January 02, 2007

Avis will be the first car renter to provide in-vehicle Wi-Fi from Autonet; get it for your car from car dealers later this year.

There's no lack of hardware to give you a Wi-Fi connection with a 3G-based backhaul, but the latest targets one specific area: the inside of your car.

Autonet Mobile this week announced a wireless unit with the eponymous name of Autonet. The $399 product will make its debut at CES 2007 next week in Las Vegas. The difference between this and, say, the JunxionBox is that Autonet will act as your Internet service provider. You won't need a separate relationship with Verizon Wireless, Sprint or Cingular for 3G backhaul. Autonet will charge $49 a month for that access.

Oh: and this product plugs directly into your car's cigarette lighter port for power.

"Our goal was to deliver seamless connectivity to the car," says Sterling Pratz, president and chief executive of Autonet. "It's a new-age media center for the car."

autonetThe Autonet unit will come with the radios inside for the 3G backhaul connection. You won't need to have a separate EV-DO or HSDPA card to plug into the hardware. Using a network layer the company calls TRU Technology, Autonet will manage the network connections. End users won't necessarily even know what 3G provider is in play, as Autonet hopes to have relationships with all the mobile carriers providing 3G. Whether the hardware will carry multiple radios to support both EV-DO (used by Verizon Wireless and Sprint) and HSDPA (from Cingular) is under discussion.

Also inside is the Wi-Fi radio for use by multiple end users (with the exception of the driver, of course) to connect laptops, PDAs, smartphones, gaming handhelds, etc. "TRU technology allows us to have multiple users on the same session," says Pratz. "Each user has individuality, their own VPN if they want, but they don't have to be an IT manager to set it up."

Autonet will launch this fall with at least one partnership with a major rental car company. Already, the unofficial word is out via the New York Times that Autonet hardware will be an option later in 2007 from Avis Rent A Car. Avis will charge users $11 a day to run the unit, with no extra charges for backhaul. Once the Autonet hardware is ready for consumers, it'll be resold through rental car partners like Avis and through car dealerships. Autonet has already struck a deal with Price Family Dealership Group, a car dealership with several locations in California, as a reseller channel. The company will also sell it online.

Pratz claims the unit, which was in trials during 2006, gets coverage on 100% of roads in metropolitan areas of the United States, and 95% coverage on most other U.S. roads. This isn't necessarily full EV-DO speeds at this percentage, as EV-DO radios will dummy down to 1xRTT speeds when out of range of an EV-DO tower.

Pratz's comment on the "new age media center" brings up what he considers something very interesting for families. He says 40% of SUVs and station wagons come with media centers that support DVDs, but people don't always remember to bring the movie disc. With Autonet, they have found kids especially embracing the on-the-move Internet access for surfing and IMs. He was especially intrigued by kids' use of the Internet along with the young-adult faux-diary called Cathy's Book, which ties the book to an online game.

Considering the portability of the Autonet, what's to prevent people from using it just about anywhere? The only limitation is probably electrical power, admits Pratz. "We have some people using it on trains," he says. "A lot of shuttle services in California use it. We haven't seen too many home applications... [but] they do exist. What we do find is a lot of executives take it. They like to use it in lieu of Starbucks. They bring their own VPN connection during a customer meeting, then they can sit in the parking lot afterward and send a presentation or e-mail. It's their own network on their own terms."

The price of $49 a month for service is also $10 less per month than what most 3G broadband providers are charging per month for access on a single device.

Whether or not the hardware will ship with the car cigarette lighter plug and an AC adapter is also under discussion. "That home model is a new focus for us," says Pratz. "We're starting to look at that more. Right now, the focus is more in the car."



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