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On a Test Drive, Autonet Was Neat but a Bit Bumpy

October 30, 2008

By Edward C. Baig

Would your kids rather watch a DVD in the car, or surf the Web, connect with friends inside social networks and download music?

Chances are it’s the latter. And if that’s so, it’s worth considering Autonet Mobile, the service that turns your vehicle into a wireless Internet hot spot. With Autonet, passengers can connect to Wi-Fi with their own laptops, smartphones, game machines or other gadgets.

To be sure, the Autonet ride is a little bumpy, especially if your clan hopes to watch Internet video in areas where there is poor cellular coverage. Autonet can tap into the same relatively fast “3G,” or third-generation, cellular data networks used by some computers and phones, but 3G coverage can be thin in some areas. And Autonet isn’t cheap, at least when it comes to the hardware. The in-vehicle router fetches $499.

You must sign up for a one-year contract, with either $29 or $59 monthly service for a 1-gigabyte or 5-GB data plan. The fee is competitive with wireless 3G plans you might get for a computer with a cellular modem. And Autonet’s fee is shared by all users, with no need for separate subscriptions.

Of course, you’re at the mercy of cell coverage. The company says it can keep you connected as you drive from one cell tower to another, even in tunnels. I rarely lost a signal as I drove around northern New Jersey, New York City and Rockland County, N.Y. But the service was poky or intermittent in areas without 3G. You can consult a coverage map at Autonet’s website. Here’s a closer look.

*What’s involved. The Autonet router — the box that brings you the Net — is typically mounted in the trunk. In the Ford Taurus X SUV rental I used for testing it was in the cargo area. It doesn’t take up much room. The router has two integrated antennas, so there’s no need to install a separate antenna on the outside of the vehicle as you might have to do, say, with satellite radio.

There are two basic ways to get the router (and service) for your own vehicle. It’s an option on all 2009 model year Chryslers products. Or you can buy it from a dealer for other vehicles. Chrysler is charging $35 to $50 for installation. An aftermarket dealer may charge up to $75.

The box for your own car is different, and not as versatile, as the one Autonet is making available with Avis under a $10.95-a-day AvisConnect rental plan. With Avis, you can connect the router to the cigarette lighter adapter, or take it with you to use as a mobile hotel router. It plugs into a wall outlet.

Too bad that’s not the case with the router Chrysler and Autonet are selling for your own car. The installation is meant to be permanent. But I could see folks wanting to use it, say, in a vacation home. Autonet says its focus is on being an Internet service provider for the car.

As with any Internet router, you can set up or change security settings to prevent outsiders from eavesdropping on your connection.

The router’s theoretical range is up to 100 feet, meaning you might park the car in your driveway and use the router to surf in the backyard. But for the hard-wired router to work, the car battery must be running, so that’s not very practical.

It took about a minute each time I started the car for my computer to find the Wi-Fi hot spot. Minor nuisance: I had to click on a login screen before I could resume surfing the Web every time I turned on the car.

*Performance. Autonet claims broadband speeds of up to 600 to 800 kilobits-per-second, but my speed tests in more challenging areas typically failed to crack 500 Kbps, and was often slower. I usually had a decent enough connection to surf news sites, check e-mail and listen to Internet radio.

But streaming video at Hulu.com and the Saturday Night Live website was all too frequently unwatchable in Midtown Manhattan and other areas. In many places the video would start and stop every few seconds, making it a poor substitute for watching a DVD.

Having a rolling hot spot is an appealing, if expensive, service for a lot of families. Just keep your expectations — and those of your kids — in check.

E-mail: ebaig@usatoday.com (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>




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