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How Did They Get Wi-Fi In That Car?

As a part-time technology geek, I often take for granted how different types of wireless data connections aren’t always easy to understand for those without the ‘I want to be a tech geek’ gene. I also find it humorous when my 10-year-old son, my nieces, nephews and the kids’ friends all refer to Wi-Fi as this wonderful thing that makes the world a better place. They even argue about who’s Wi-Fi is best with comments like, “My house has better Wi-Fi than your house.” Remember the old days when kids would argue over stuff that matters, like whose dad was the toughest? Somehow there was more pride in those arguments despite still having to correct them. Instead, we get to hear statements like, “Awwww, they have Wi-Fi in their car! No fair!”

The tech geek in me finds this humorous because Wi-Fi doesn’t do nearly as much as most people assume. I don’t even need Wi-Fi most of the time when I have my trusty LTE enabled smartphone in my pocket. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

What does Wi-Fi actually do?

Wi-Fi provides a small local network where two or more devices can connect. It’s no different than taking a cable and plugging those two devices together to let them talk. Got more friends? Get more cables! Those cables create a local network with no ability to go elsewhere. In the same way, Wi-Fi eliminates the cables and connects devices together wirelessly.

Once connected to your local Wi-Fi network, you can do a few limited data transactions between the devices on that local network. But Wi-Fi isn’t an application in and of itself. Alone, it doesn’t let you play your game against someone else, or FaceTime a friend, or facilitate electronic payments. Wi-Fi is only the local connection, and it’s other applications, software and networks that help you do the rest. And in the same way that a physical cable only stretches a certain distance, Wi-Fi also has its distance limitations. You may have problems connecting with people and businesses that are more than a stone’s throw away if you rely solely on Wi-Fi.

Don’t get me wrong, Wi-Fi is a wonderful thing. It allows close connections without wires, and the applications that you can run over that simple local network are extremely powerful. But in terms of enabling you to use the Internet (and all the wonderful things associated with it), it’s useless on its own. It’s only when you connect that Wi-Fi router to a much larger network that it facilitates access to the Internet, and that’s where Wi-Fi provides the value. These larger networks come in some different forms: they can be wired over old school copper, new fibre optic technology (FiON) and wireless technology (LTE, HSPA, GSM, etc). It’s these larger networks that connect you to the extended digital world that we associate more commonly with Wi-Fi.

So, how did they get Wi-Fi in that car?

The answer isn’t very complex and – spoiler alert – you probably already have the ability to do this. You know that “mobile hotspot” option on your smartphone? When you turn it on, your phone creates a small local Wi-Fi network and uses the connection from your mobile network to feed the Wi-Fi. (Disclaimer: You may need to change rate plans or pay for a feature to use it). Next time you’re in your car, turn it on and you too can have in-car Wi-Fi. But also remember to never use a handheld device while driving.

Your kids will be delighted, and it’ll be one less thing for them to complain about! Even better, there are some great Internet data devices like the Novatel Wireless MiFi 2 that can be used in your car and carried with you. Using this device, you would become a moving Wi-Fi hotspot. Not only would you have Wi-Fi in your car, but you could move that hotspot anywhere you go.

There’s more to this story…

To me, the more interesting part is how GM, for example, can use wireless data to deliver an enhanced service to customers. Ever since they introduced their OnStar service, they have been building cars complete with cellular modems to allow customers to connect to their OnStar reps. In the past, when you pressed a particular button the phone called OnStar so you could chat. A rep could then tell you where the nearest sushi restaurant was or help answer a friendly debate you had with your passenger. That service wasn’t provided for free though (you bought the car) and GM paid the cellular carriers for the connection that got you hooked on their service.

They have wisely evolved their service to include Wi-Fi connectivity in today’s cars. Now the service allows data to transmit over cellular networks to the car, and GM has put a small piece of hardware inside your vehicle to turn on Wi-Fi. The price of your Wi-Fi is included in the vehicle and in the monthly service fee that you will eventually be asked to pay. Yes, they will likely offer it free for a number of months to get you hooked.

The real enabler here is the LTE network that connects those devices to the Internet. LTE is the first generation of cellular data that can provide speeds to the end user with a similar (and sometimes better) speed than the Wi-Fi most people have in their home.

As a businessperson, I would be looking for the scenarios where opportunity exists to capitalize on being more responsive or providing greater value like GM did with the in-car Wi-Fi. You’ve likely heard the new term called the “Internet of Things” that references opportunities to change how we do business by doing things faster, more automated and with connected devices. In-car Wi-Fi creates connected drivers and is just one example of the application of the Internet of Things.

So, should you buy a car with Wi-Fi in it?

I don’t see it as a feature that would drive me to choose one vehicle over another. I would even be concerned about a couple of things and ask these questions:

  1. Will that modem be updated as LTE and next-generation data networks are developed?
  2. Who is the service provider and do they have network coverage that I need?

As I stated earlier, if you want mobile Wi-Fi and want to know the answers to the previous questions, consider picking up a MiFi 2 (or similar product) and enjoy the freedom it provides with your existing car, in your office and at your cottage. With the MiFi 2 you can replace the device when the network is updated, and you will know what coverage is available.

From a business perspective, did GM do something unique and valuable? Absolutely. They used commonly available technology and made it look unique when plugged into their cars. New opportunities on how to run your business or what you can offer to your customers are presenting themselves every day as a result of continued improvements in mobile data transmission. Opportunities to improve your operations, provide services to your customers and grow your business are readily available. Will you adopt them and create value for your customers, or will your competitor beat you to it?

What other technology updates have you seen in your daily life that you want us to explain? Tell us in the comments below.

Clint Unrau

Clint Unrau is a manager of a team of business analysts at Bell MTS who help take new products from idea to reality. He holds a Bachelor of Commerce (Honours) from the University of Manitoba and has worked for some of the top Manitoba-based companies where he excels at using information technology to address business opportunities. Clint is proud to be environmentally conscious, minimizes personal consumption (reduce before recycle) and only buys new technology when it meets stringent efficiency standards. Why drive when you could walk, ride or sail to your destination?

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