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Tapping Into In-Car WiFi

What It Does, What It Will Cost and Why You'd Want It

Thanks to consumer desire for connectivity and convenience, WiFi is now common in many households. The wireless Internet connection standard is also pervasive outside the home at coffee shops, hotels and even outdoor spaces like parks.

One of the few places where WiFi hasn't been available is in vehicles, but that's changing now that drivers and passengers are demanding to stay connected. Automakers have begun to turn their vehicles into roving WiFi hot spots via onboard high-speed cellular modems and other means.

Since most drivers already have an Internet connection on their smartphones, in-car WiFi may seem like a technology trying to fulfill a need that doesn't exist — and another way for wireless carriers to get consumers to spend more on data. But Mark Boyadjis, a senior analyst of automotive infotainment and HMI for IHS Technology, said the technology isn't "just about having a WiFi hot spot in the car."

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He noted that WiFi is used by Tesla to perform over-the-air software updates on the Model S, and a technology called WiFi Direct will be appearing in cars soon to allow a better data connection than Bluetooth. He also predicted that, as with other new technologies, in-car WiFi will eventually enable uses that no one has yet envisioned.

Automotive WiFi and the Cost To Connect
For now, automotive WiFi is used primarily to create a hot spot in the vehicle to connect portable devices such as laptop computers, smartphones and tablets. As with Internet access at home and at some hotels, there's a cost for the connection.

Audi was the first to offer embedded in-car WiFi as part of the Audi Connect system starting in 2011. The service uses a T-Mobile 3G cellular modem and is available on the A4, A5, Allroad, A6, A7, A8, Q5 and Q7. New vehicles come with a complimentary six-month trial, after which the cost is $30 a month, $324 a year or $450 for 30 months, including unlimited data.

With the launch of the 2015 A3, Audi added AT&T as the car's wireless provider and 4G LTE capability for faster speeds. The A3 also comes with six months of free WiFi. After that, the cost is $99 for six months and up to 5GB of data, or $499 for 30 months and up to 30GB of data.

Starting in mid-2014 and working through its OnStar division, GM introduced built-in 4G LTE WiFi provided by AT&T and launched the service in certain 2015 model-year vehicles. The first three months or 3GB, whichever comes first, is free. Following this trial period, GM's in-car WiFi is available through a number of pricing plans, depending on whether the car owner is an OnStar subscriber.

Pricing ranges from $5 for 200MB of data for OnStar subscribers ($10 a month for nonsubscribers) up to $50 a month for 5GB of data regardless of whether the car owner is an OnStar subscriber. Existing AT&T customers can add a GM vehicle with WiFi to the wireless carrier's Mobile Share Plan starting at $10 a month. GM also allows owners to buy WiFi à la carte for $5 a day for 200MB of data whether or not they're OnStar subscribers.

Chrysler offers a similar pay-as-you-go WiFi service through its UConnect Access telematics system. Sprint provides the service and it goes for $9.99 a day, $19.99 a week or $34.99 a month. It doesn't require a subscription and comes with unlimited data.

Boyadjis said the à la carte options offered by Chrysler and GM work best for most drivers. "I'm probably not going to need WiFi capability in my car on a daily basis," he added. "But if I go on a road trip, I can buy it just for those three days or that week. I think going forward, other automakers should focus on this subscription model."

Bring Your Own Data or Buy Your Own Router
Ford doesn't offer built-in WiFi, but owners can add wireless connectivity to any vehicle equipped with the MyFord Touch infotainment system in two ways. First, the system can connect to a WiFi hot spot and subsequently create one in the car. So if the vehicle is parked outside of, say, a Starbucks, the driver can establish a connection. While this may do in a pinch when car occupants need connectivity (and don't want to get out of the car), it doesn't do much good while on the road.

For on-the-go WiFi, the MyFord Touch system allows users to plug a mobile broadband modem into the car's USB port. That creates a hot spot in the car, providing Internet access via the cellular connection. This way, people can use a data allotment they're already paying for with the mobile broadband modem and avoid a separate charge just for the car.

The Tesla Model S has a similar remote WiFi capability, along with a built-in 3G modem that allows its own Internet connection. The primary purpose of the WiFi feature in the Model S is to connect to an owner's home network and, if the car is parked close enough, download software updates to the car instead of through the car's 3G modem.

To get WiFi in any vehicle, Autonet Mobile offers WiFi routers as an aftermarket add-on. Autonet Mobile's WiFi router retails for $349.99 and requires a one-year service contract with a monthly service plan of $29.95 for up to 1GB of data per month or $59.95 for up to 5GB of data per month. Autonet Mobile's router runs over both 3G and 2.5G cellular data networks.

The Autonet Mobile system is also available as a dealer-installed option through Chrysler, Mercedes-Benz and Subaru. It's also a factory-installed feature in certain GM, Chrysler and Maserati vehicles. The various automakers have their own pricing. GM, for example, offers the service as a prepaid option for $179 per year or $19.95 per month with a one-year commitment.

Why Do We Need In-Car WiFi?
While most car buyers may not have a need for WiFi in vehicles — or for paying a separate data plan — it's a feature that's familiar to shoppers, and as such, easy to market, said Roger Lanctot, associate director of global automotive practice at Strategy Analytics. "Consumer demand for in-car WiFi is low," he said. "But everybody understands WiFi, so it is something dealers don't really have to explain in order to sell."

Lanctot added that while the appeal of in-car WiFi hot spots is currently limited to on-the-go families and professionals, "it won't take a lot of users to justify the cost of implementing" the technology on the part of automakers. Boyadjis noted that the availability of WiFi is expected to grow from about 3 million vehicles globally in 2014 to more than 10 million by 2021.

Beyond creating rolling hot spots, Boyadjis predicted the more prevalent use of in-car WiFi for over-the-air software updates, as Tesla does with the Model S. This could allow automakers to remotely handle software-related recalls repairs, which would mean fewer headaches for car owners since they wouldn't have to bring their vehicles into dealerships.

Boyadjis also said that WiFi Direct is scheduled to appear in vehicles in a few years. "WiFi Direct will become a major feature for portable device integration that Bluetooth can't handle," he said. "You can't generally stream video over Bluetooth, for example."

Boyadjis added that WiFi Direct is becoming a more common feature in smartphones and tablets. Automakers have had to wait for the technology to become available in portable devices before adding it to their cars.

"With any new technology, when it's launched, the use cases and applications haven't been defined," he said. "If you look at technology adoption, when something new is developed, the innovators combine it with a service or feature to create something new," he said. "I think that will happen with in-car WiFi."