Thursday, January 04, 2007

Autonet: The next nail in radio's coffin?

At next week's annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, one product will be introduced that will likely have serious implications in the world of broadcast radio.

Yes indeed, WiFi is coming to your automobile.

A startup San Francisco company called Autonet Mobile is promising to turn your vehicle into a WiFi hotspot on wheels. What their new product, to be released to the public in March, will do is bring the information superhighway straight to the real highway. Over-the-road business execs can check email from a rest stop (or surf, ahem, less-than-dignified sites), or passengers can surf the web and play interactive games via the broadband connection. However, perhaps the biggest implication is something greater: Access to streaming audio.

This is something that has been predicted for a long time. With many major cities starting up vast WiFi networks, it was only a matter of time before someone realized that this would enable people to take the internet away from the wall connection and on the road. Torian Wireless is doing just that with their own device, designed for WiFi hotspots. Autonet is it's own hotspot. Miss not being able to listen to Radio Paradise away from the desk? No problem. Need your Air America Radio? You've got it! Need the perfect soundtrack for the Aston Martin DB5 while fighting international baddies? Done!

Yes, with the arrival of WiFi on the road, the people will soon be able to take control. And that control gain will come from terrestrial broadcasters, who will either have to become extremely creative in holding on to their listeners or go the cost-cutting and fire sale route. Which road will they take?

The company will provide their own network, and one that won't conflict with municipal WiFi or cellular signals. However, the web on wheels won't come cheap. Power does indeed come at a price. As with all new technology, the Autonet unit is expected to retail for $399, with a $49 a month access fee. It's being aimed toward business travellers, but will likely find favor with bored passengers as well. And I'm sure someone will come up with a convenient way to utilize the streaming audio as well. Avis has just come on board, and will offer the service in their rental cars for $10.95 a day, starting in March. As with most new technology, expect it to grow even further once prices start coming down. Heck, even HD radio receivers are getting cheaper.

As for the long-term implications for radio? Well, over the decades, we've moved from 8-track tapes to cassettes to CDs to satellite radio to iPods to HD radio. One wonders what kind of impact WiFi will have. Needless to say, this will be one heck of a paradigm shift for all involved.


Anonymous said...

I've been using my Sprint Windows mobile PDA/cell phone to stream internet radio in my car for the past 2 years. There's no additional charge and the sound quality is great - I listen to Jazz from London or Air America from LA while I'm driving on Cape Cod. Best of all - the LA weather forecasts are much better than our local forecasts.

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