What to Know About In-Car Wi-Fi

Stay connected on the go with this mobile internet technology.

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Most new cars sold today offer mobile internet connectivity, often advertising in-car Wi-Fi anyone along for the ride can use. How does this technology work, and what can you expect to pay for it? Here's a closer look at mobile Wi-Fi to help you decide whether it's worth the subscription.

What is in-car Wi-Fi?

In-car Wi-Fi is a catch-all term used to describe a vehicle-based internet hotspot. Conceptually, it's no different than a router used at home or a mobile hotspot that fits in your pocket. By connecting, you can access the internet wirelessly, using as many devices as you may have on hand, sometimes up to seven or 10 — even while your automobile rolls down the highway.

How does in-car Wi-Fi work?

There are two fundamental components to in-car Wi-Fi. The first is the vehicle's mobile internet connection, which uses cell networks just like a mobile phone — only with a much larger and more powerful antenna. This connection can provide a minimum 4G LTE data transfer speed. That's quick enough to handle not just any data needs associated with onboard systems, but also to share bandwidth with passengers seeking to browse social media, download email, or even stream video on their devices.

The second feature is the vehicle's router. This piece of hardware provides a Wi-Fi signal to connect phones, tablets, and smartwatches, allowing them to take advantage of the vehicle's data capabilities. Like a router at home or in an office, it's possible to use a password and data encryption to restrict access and protect your data from hackers who might be parked nearby. However, they'd have to be sitting quite nearby, as the broadcast capability of in-car Wi-Fi is generally limited to the area immediately surrounding the vehicle.

What does in-car Wi-Fi cost?

Pricing for in-car Wi-Fi varies by which manufacturer makes it available. Common features of any mobile connectivity plan include an initial free trial period followed by a monthly or annual subscription charge. You can expect to pay at minimum $20 monthly for a basic in-car Wi-Fi data plan per line.

It's worth noting how much bandwidth is available with a given plan, as some provide unlimited data while others impose a cap on how much you can stream. Watch for which additional related services may be included with your plan, as some can add to your costs. General Motors, for example, bundles in-car Wi-Fi plans with its telematics service, On-Star (which also makes it available as a separate prepaid option). Other manufacturers offer similar bundles with other telematics vendors.

Several manufacturers partner with AT&T as their in-car Wi-Fi connectivity provider. The company provides third-party subscriptions direct to vehicle owners and powering OEM-branded services.

What are the pros and cons of in-car Wi-Fi?

In-car Wi-Fi is undoubtedly useful, but for many motorists, it represents a duplication of the connectivity already available through their mobile phones — and an additional recurring cost for a subscription.

Being able to rely on the powerful, high-mounted antenna attached to a vehicle to stay connected in remote areas (where mobile devices might face more of a challenge getting a signal) is ideal, but for many drivers, simply operating a mobile hotspot from their phone is often a more economical option. Other passengers (especially kids in the back seat) can use the mobile hotspot during most journeys.

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Benjamin Hunting
Benjamin Hunting is a writer and podcast host who contributes to a number of newspapers, automotive magazines, and online publications. More than a decade into his career, he enjoys keeping the shiny side up during track days and always has one too many classic vehicle projects partially disassembled in his garage at any given time. Remember, if it's not leaking, it's probably empty.