By Lisa Johnston
New products on display at the American International Toy Fair, held in N
Autonet Mobile, which calls itself the first ISP for cars, wants to be the AOL of the automobile.
The company is selling a $399 black box that plugs into a vehicle's lighter to create a Wi-Fi connection for a car to enable passengers to connect to the Internet and access e-mail.
Autonet co-founder Sterling Pratz, a former race car driver and Xerox executive, said, "When we started this, we thought TV in the back would be the killer app, but it turns out, when given the opportunity, kids would rather check e-mail and get on social networks and the Internet."
The company has been selling its Wi-Fi service for cars nationwide since this summer and just signed a deal with Avis Rent A Car. At the end of March, Avis will rent the Autonet Wi-Fi unit as an option with their rental cars at $10.95 and also sell the product outright with its standard service fee of $49.95 per month in 10 cities including San Francisco, San Diego, Chicago, Dallas, New York, Atlanta and Washington. The company is also talking to retailers such as Best Buy, Circuit City and Car Toys.
Avis will offer the service at about 20 to 30 locations per city, said Pratz.
Autonet works with any Wi-Fi device including notebook PCs, Sony PSPs and portable media players or smartphones creating a "Wi-Fi hot spot" for the car.
Pratz claims that while 40 percent of SUVs and station wagons are equipped with DVD players, the No. 1 complaint of users is that they forget to bring a DVD with them. DVDs "don't support today's lifestyle of the Internet, e-mail and social media. We are putting the connected lifestyle in the car with an easy to use service for executives and families on the go."
The company received 10,000 orders at International CES and 20,000 inquiries, Pratz said.
Autonet claims it provides a seamless connection in a moving vehicle without the equivalent of "dropped calls" on a cellphone. Pratz says Autonet is a type of virtual private network (VPN) for cars. VPNs are secure areas created on the Internet that are used typically by corporations.
While a VPN is subject to service interruptions, Autonet created a technology "which manages the connection down to the packet layer. The system understands there are packets that might be lost and holds them and redistributes them so you as the user never lose your connection," Pratz said. Autonet calls this TRU technology.
Pratz started the company more than a year and a half ago along with Doug Moeller, a network developer who helped build the largest wireless ISP in Northern California, said Pratz. Autonet can be ordered presently at www.autonetmobile.com.
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