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Photo of dashboard featuring Sprint Velocity (Rogers/Sprint)
Photo of dashboard featuring Sprint Velocity (Rogers/Sprint)

wireless

WiFi-enabled vehicles coming to Canada Add to ...

Rogers Communications Inc. is partnering with Sprint Corp. to introduce a “connected car” wireless service next year that will provide Canadians with high-speed Internet access while they are on the road.

The agreement between the two carriers, which will be announced Thursday, enables auto makers that deploy the Sprint Velocity system – as Chrysler Group does on some of its U.S. vehicles – to use Rogers’ cellular networks to provide equipped vehicles with a wireless connection. That, in turn, will allow Canadians using the system to turn their cars into living rooms on wheels.

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Auto makers, telecommunications giants, software companies and app developers see huge potential in the connected car as drivers demand vehicles with the same technology and services they have at home.

“We’re just at the beginning of this whole connected car space and it’s kind of a Wild West,” said Doug Newcomb, an auto technology expert and consultant based in Fort Hood, Ore.

Sprint Velocity launched in the United States last year and will be available in Canada in 2014. The system enables drivers to use smartphones to start their engines and an interactive touch-screen dashboard provides customized content, including news, sports scores, weather alerts, driving directions and vehicle diagnostics.

Cars using the system are equipped with built-in wireless modems and SIM cards such as those found in cellphones. That will also allow consumers to purchase WiFi on demand to create an in-car “hotspot” capable of supporting smartphones, tablets and laptops.

Sprint says the system will eventually support online shopping, mobile payments, e-mail and other applications.

Rogers, Canada’s largest wireless carrier with more than nine million subscribers, is eager to capitalize on Canadians’ desire for constant connectivity. Although some luxury vehicles come with some of these features, the introduction of Sprint Velocity will mark the beginning of a broader push to make the connected car as mainstream as power windows and air conditioning.

“You are starting to see the groundswell of [the] connected car going to be coming to Canada within the next year,” said Mansell Nelson, vice-president of advanced business solutions for Rogers. “Think of your car as just a big phone with four wheels.”

Demand for connectivity is strongest in luxury segments, but is growing among all drivers, noted Chris Travell, vice-president of strategic consulting for Maritz Research’s automotive research group, citing the company’s annual survey of new car buyers.

“As technology gets introduced in the upper segments, it trickles down after a suitable period of time into the other segments,” Mr. Travell said.

Rogers believes connected cars represent an opportunity to boost revenue generated by data traffic over its wireless networks. The Sprint Velocity will ride on Rogers’ ultra-fast LTE (long-term evolution) network where available, but can also function on its older networks.

Demand is growing so rapidly that Rogers thinks there could be about 100 million connected cars globally by 2016.

Pricing for WiFi has yet to be determined. But Rogers will likely allow customers to add a connected car as one more device on their family share plans, which allow consumers living in the same household to share a big bucket of wireless data among multiple devices such as smartphones and tablets. Consumers using those plans now can connect up to 10 devices per plan.

“We want you not to be worried about which device is going to use it. So I think changing that dynamic will have you less worried about streaming a video over Netflix in the back of a car going down the highway,” Mr. Nelson said.

Other wireless carriers are examining similar opportunities. Telus Corp., for instance, has had discussions with auto makers and others.

Follow on Twitter: @gregkeenanglobe

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