It's in airports. It's in coffee shops. It's in your home and every FedEx Kinko's store in the nation. And if a San Francisco-based start-up named Autonet has its way, it will be in your
It's Wi-Fi -- high-speed access to e-mail and the Internet without the annoyance of plugs and a rat's nest of wires. Autonet plans to debut Autonet Mobile at next week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in a device that will bring Wi-Fi to your Honda or Saturn.
Of course, Autonet hopes that what happens in Las Vegas won't stay in Las Vegas. The firm expects its product to appeal to enterprise customers and road rogues who feel ten minutes is too long to be without e-mail or access to the corporate network.
Autonet's device, which draws power from a car's cigarette lighter, piggybacks on the EVDO mobile broadband systems of Sprint and Verizon, then converts the data streams into a standard Wi-Fi transmission so users don't need special equipment in their laptop computers -- just the standard Wi-Fi adapters that most of today's notebooks have by default.
EVDO is one of three mobile broadband systems in the U.S. today, and according to some experts, it's the fastest. Sprint and Verizon have spent heavily to install EVDO networks across the nation; their rival, Cingular, has invested in HSDPA, which rivals EVDO for speed, while T-Mobile still has an older, slower system called EDGE.
But not all Autonet users will get EVDO speeds, which range between 400 and 700 Kbps. "The areas in between the major cities I'm not so convinced about," said Eddie Hold, an analyst with research firm Current Analysis. "I don't think most rural areas have EVDO coverage."
Where fast coverage is not an option, Autonet will switch to slower networks that still provide data transmission at rates closer to ISDN or even analog modem speeds. But Hold said he sees more problems with Autonet's plan than merely rural coverage speeds.
He said he believes that demand for mobile broadband is growing, but not as quickly as some companies -- including major cellular providers -- might like. "As a quick reality check, when you look at the data revenue from most of the wireless carriers today, most of the data revenues are still coming from old text messaging," he said. "Most of the money isn't coming from EVDO today."
Buzz, Buzz, and More Buzz
Autonet, which has been featured in the New York Times, on the Today Show, and in dozens of other outlets, has been the object of plenty of interest-producing buzz. And no doubt a cadre of early adopters will find it a product they can't live without.
But Hold said he wonders whether an in-car Wi-Fi system will be worth the up-front $399 price tag and a $49 monthly fee. "You can just get an EVDO card and put it into your laptop," he said, noting that laptops with EVDO cards can follow their users into board rooms, classrooms, and even living rooms. A Lincoln or a Mazda can't.