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Cellular network used as backhaul for in-car Wi-Fi hotspot

Not for the budget-conscious

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Two 3G (sort of) cellular networks, provided by Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel, jointly cover most of continental USA. Now, find a way of using those networks to provide in-car internet.

Normally, you'd be forced to get at least two data cards, and plug them into your PC, and switch from one network to the other as coverage varied. It's not a consumer friendly option, which probably explains where Autonet Mobile founder Sterling Pratz got his idea for a car-based Wi-Fi hotspot.

To quote David Haskin writing in Macworld, "Our thought was to turn the car into a hot spot so people could have the same experience in their car as in their home or office," said Pratz, a former racing driver.

The system takes the download from the two cellular providers, and automatically feeds it into an in-car wireless access point.

The idea seems perverse at first sight. WiFi is a lot faster than the EV-DO data system which is the American version of 3G cellular broadband. Even the Rev A version of EV-DO won't give more than 2.5 megabits as its maximum download speed, and that figure drops off noticeably as you move away from the cellular mast, and as the bandwidth gets shared amongst other data users. Expect average downloads of below half a megabit.

Using cellular links from two providers offers the option of combining the bandwidth from both, providing acceptable surfing performance in good coverage. Outside 3G areas, however, the system drops back to the US equivalent of GPRS, the much slower 1xRTT.

Costs make it clear that this option is not for the budget-conscious. The AP costs one dollar short of $400, and it's just below $50 a month on top of that to have data access to the two networks.

There's a good chance that people accustomed to WiFi hotspot surfing, together with VoIP phone services like Skype, will be disappointed by this service at first, because it's hard to believe it won't introduce extra latency delays into the data stream. However, the advantage over trying to plug data cards into a PC for cellular data will be consideable, in usability terms.

Full details won't be available till the company unveils the service at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. But it looks as if the company may have plans above and beyond providing WiFi Internet inside cars, because it has revealed that this Wireless Access Point will plug into standard mains power, as well as the in-car 10V line.

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