Why your next wireless gadget will be a car

A new product turns your automobile into a mobile Wi-Fi hot spot

We Americans love our cars, don't we? We have turned them into mobile bubbles of comfort and entertainment -- extensions of our homes, really. Nowadays, cars have incredible sound systems, comfortable seats, DVD players -- you name it. Just like home. But our homes have one thing cars don't have: Wi-Fi networks.

Wi-Fi and automobiles. Automobiles and Wi-Fi. The two were made for each other, if you think about it.

Cars are boring for passengers, who would surf the Internet, chat with friends or watch TV if they could. Drivers could use Internet connections, too, to get updated driving directions or find out about a local restaurant. And cars have large batteries -- big enough to power wireless routers.

The AutoNet In-Car Router

The AutoNet In-Car RouterThe idea of Wi-Fi-enabled cars will seem dangerous and excessive to some. Many are just now getting used to the idea of fixed wireless hot spots and the growing ubiquity of wireless Internet access. But I believe that -- love the idea or hate it -- the widespread installation of Wi-Fi networks in cars is an unstoppable inevitability.

Fifteen years ago, very few people accepted the idea that just about everyone -- including teens -- would have a cell phone, but now it's a fact of life.

The old model for telephones was that they were installed in fixed locations -- pay phones on the street corner, one in the home and another in the office -- and people moved from phone to phone. Now, the phone goes with you.

Likewise, the current model for Wi-Fi hot spots is that they're fixed, and "mobility" means that you move from one stationary wireless network to the next. But in the future -- the very near future -- you'll take your wireless hot spot with you.

Autonet Mobile to roll out car Wi-Fi

Autonet Mobile Inc. is a San Francisco-based start-up that claims to be the word's "first ISP for cars." The company plans to unveil its product and service next week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Autonet Mobile will sell a black box starting in March that plugs into a car cigarette lighter (or standard wall outlet) and connects to the Internet via a 3G cellular connection. Then, just like your home Wi-Fi network, it makes that connection available to wireless devices, such as laptops, at rates of 400 Kbit/sec. to 1 Mbit/sec, depending on the speed and quality of the available cell network.

The system works whether the car is parked or speeding down the highway at 75 mph. Autonet Mobile claims to offer special technology in a wireless router that enables "seamless connectivity," even as the data signal is passed from one cell tower to the next. The company claims its product will work on 95% of U.S. roads.

Anyone within 100 feet of the Autonet Mobile box can connect if he knows the secret log-in information. That means you can park at a restaurant, take your laptop inside and still connect. A caravan of cars traveling together could all share the Wi-Fi connection of one car. And you can cancel your T-Mobile wireless account with Starbucks because the hot spot in your car will be just as available as Starbucks' network when you're inside sucking down your Venti Slurpachino.

Autonet Mobile is shockingly inexpensive: The box will cost about $399, and the service will be about $49 a month, which is about the same as business users pay for a smartphone and all-you-can-eat data service from their cell phone provider.

Business travelers often pay between $7 and $20 per day to use hotel Wi-Fi networks. If you're an Autonet subscriber, however, you can take your box with you and use your own personal Wi-Fi network in the room at no additional charge.

Theoretically, the Autonet Mobile box could replace your home network as well.

Autonet Mobile could radically reduce total payment for Internet connectivity. You could cancel the data part of your cell phone plan, cancel your home network account and stop paying hotels their rip-off rates for connectivity and get all your network access from one $50-per-month connection.

Portable routers aren't new. Existing products -- including the D-Link Wireless 3G Mobile Router; the Kyocera KR1 Mobile Router; and the TOP Global 3G Phoebus product -- are also designed to enable Wi-Fi connectivity to a cellular data connection.

These other offerings, however, are portable, not mobile. They are designed to be transported, then set up in a temporary fixed location. The Autonet Mobile device, on the other hand, is designed to also be used while the car is moving. The Autonet "secret sauce" is its patent-pending TRU technology, according to the company. TRU facilitates the handoffs between low- and high-speed networks, without dropping the connection.

Existing products are regular Wi-Fi routers modified with PC card slots that enable you to plug in a cellular data card (for a laptop) and connect to the Internet over the cell phone data network.

Autonet Mobile claims to be the first-ever company that requires no expertise, operates "seamlessly" while in motion and does not require a PC card adapter. While other offerings are for professionals (with the exception of the 3G Phoebus router), Autonet Mobile is expressly designed for families and business travelers.

The idea of the personal, mobile Wi-Fi hot spot is a radical, liberating paradigm shifter.

What will drive adoption?

Autonet Mobile isn't perfect, and success isn't guaranteed. The company still faces legal, technical and cultural obstacles.

There will be plenty of debate about the safety of Wi-Fi in cars -- after all, drivers will be tempted to surf the Internet with their laptops while on the highway, won't they? We can look forward to high-profile newspaper stories about people crashing cars because they were watching YouTube videos while sailing through busy intersections, or sending e-mail on the freeway. The media reports will prompt calls for bans on network-enabled cars. All the usual blame-the-technology-not-the-idiot impulses will apply to in-car Wi-Fi.

The nature of the cellular data networks will prevent perfect, universal connections. Some users will inevitably experience dropped connections and slow service in some rural areas or even in some big cities.

Heavy users could drain the cars' batteries after hours of use, potentially shutting down both the network and the car.

Other technical issues could crop up as they always do with new technologies and 1.0 products.

The biggest potential hurdle is cultural -- Autonet Mobile represents a new way of doing things, which is always a tough sell for start-ups.

However, the company has one spectacular advantage: a deal with Avis Rent A Car. Avis plans to announce next week that it will offer Autonet Mobile service to customers starting in March for $10.95 a day, according to a Jan. 1 report in The New York Times.

That means business travelers will get to test drive the Autonet Mobile service at a very low cost. As an executive platinum-level business traveler myself, I can tell you that it's something I will definitely be using -- and compelling enough for me to choose Avis over competitors.

Once people try mobile Wi-Fi, they're going to want one for their own car.

You heard it here first, folks: The next big thing in wireless mobility is your car.

Mike Elgan is a technology writer and former editor of Windows Magazine. He can be reached at mike.elgan@elgan.com or his blog: http://therawfeed.com.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

Shop Tech Products at Amazon