AT&T Turns Vehicles into Wi-Fi Hot SpotsLast year, Audi became the first auto manufacturer to offer vehicles with their own wireless Internet access plan. Since then, the idea has expanded — both GM and Volkswagen now also offer connected vehicles. That’s great for new car buyers, but what about those who don’t want to spend tens of thousands of dollars to go online in their car? New technology from AT&T can turn any car made after 1996 into a mobile hot spot. Highway Wi-Fi Since 1996, every new vehicle sold in the U.S. comes equipped with government-mandated second-generation on-board diagnostic (OBD2) electronics to control the engine and emission system. OBD2 replaced earlier, cruder electronic engine controls, and introduced a universal connector for plugging in diagnostic equipment. That standardization was good news for mechanics and enthusiasts, who could buy one tool to diagnose all makes and models. Now it’s good news for non-gearheads as well: AT&T’s ZTE Mobley plugs into your car’s OBD2 connector, transforming your vehicle into a Wi-Fi hot spot. Download While on the Road Because it draws power through your vehicle, the ZTE Mobley has power whenever the car’s key is turned to the “on” or “accessory” setting, just like your car’s radio. It never needs charging, it’s wire-free, and in most vehicles, it’s completely inconspicuous. It’s capable of connecting up to five devices at a time, which should be plenty for all but the largest families. The device delivers 4G LTE speeds, which averaged nearly 16 Mbps in one test. A number of plans are available, including three gigs of data for $30 per month. Is this the end of “Are we there yet”? Obviously, drivers shouldn’t be the ones using the device, but for kids in the back seat, and the parents who don’t want to listen to them, the device could be a lifesaver. In-car entertainment has been available for some time, but now kids can consume the content of their choice, beyond DVDs or entertainment downloaded to an iPod, tablet, or other device without its own Internet connection. Three gigs of data per month isn’t a ton, but should be sufficient for most passengers. Not Just Kids’ Stuff The applications for the ZTE Mobley go beyond simple entertainment. Imagine being able to use the technology to make last-minute adjustments to a big business presentation or download updates for your latest high-profile project. It has the potential for some on-the-road education and safety, too: you can watch a tutorial on how to change a flat tire or perform first aid in an emergency, using a screen big enough to actually see. A passenger with a laptop or tablet could become the ultimate navigator. Will it work on my car? The ZTE Mobley will work on virtually all vehicles made in 1996 or later: the only potential problem is the location of your car’s OBD2 connector. In most vehicles, it’s located underneath the dashboard, near the driver’s knees. A few vehicles have the connector in other locations, such as under the ashtray or in the glove box, which might not leave enough room for the ZTE Mobley. Find out for sure by looking in your car’s owner’s manual, then looking in your car for the 16-pin trapezoid-shaped plug. It’s also worth mentioning that some 1994 and 1995 vehicles originally sold in California also use OBD2 electronics, but some of these offer only partial OBD2 functionality. Again, check your manual to be sure. Vehicles come with only one OBD2 port, so if you’re using an insurance company–provided device designed to monitor your driving habits, like Progressive’s Snapshot, you won’t have anywhere to plug the ZTE Mobley. Even the slowest car is faster than a house, but do you want your car’s Internet connection to be faster than the one in your home? The average residential Internet connection in the U.S. is only 11.9 Mbps, so unless you like the idea of using Netflix and your car to create your own drive-in theater, enter your ZIP code below to find a faster plan for connecting to the Internet from the comfort of your living room. [zipfinder]
Will Smith is a copywriter living in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His favorite word is “petrichor,” and aside from wordplay, he loves reading history, watching Dodger baseball, and racing with the Sports Car Club of America.