Wi-Fi for Cars

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Last updated: 06/30/2020
Wi-Fi for Cars

Wi-Fi Through Your Smartphone

Activating a hotspot on your personal smartphone remains the easiest, and possibly cheapest way to connect to the internet from your car. Of course, you will need to own a smartphone with hotspot capabilities. If you do not own a smartphone yet, then this could still be the cheapest way to get Wi-Fi in your car, especially if you are looking to upgrade your mobile device. If you have a hotspot capable smartphone, then you will also need to make sure you have an internet data plan.
When you turn your phone into a hotspot, it will allow you to connect your other devices to it, like you would connect to a regular Wi-Fi network. Remember that once you are using the internet on your other devices through your mobile hotspot, you will be eating into your phone’s data allowance. You may also need to make sure that your cellular provider allows tethering, although most providers certainly do, some tethered data is restricted to slower download speeds, so remember to read the fine print in your mobile contract!
The cost of using a mobile hotspot for Wi-Fi in your car will depend on your individual data plan, and whether you already own a smartphone. 

Wi-Fi Through a Dedicated Hotspot Device

There are three types of dedicated hotspot device that you can use to get Wi-Fi in your car. These devices include the same type of cellular data connection as your smartphone to create a Wi-Fi network, but you can’t use them for anything else. These three devices are:

Cellular Dongles
These are USB devices that are usually designed to connect to your laptop or computer to create a Wi-Fi network. Some dongle models will also allow a connection to your car, so check to see if your car has a USB slot. 
Self-Contained Devices
These devices have built in batteries, so they do not require any kind of connection to provide your car with Wi-Fi. If they are running low on power, most of them come with a 12v power adaptor so that you can charge them while you are on the road. Self-contained hotspots are more portable than dongles, as you can take them out of the car with you, travelling with the wireless network. This kind of dedicated mobile hotspot tends to be the most expensive dedicated hotspot option, but you do get the benefit of being able to use them when you are not near a power source. 
There are plenty of these devices available to buy from companies such as Verizon, Novatel, Netgear, T-Mobile, AT&T and many more. Prices start around $100 and, depending on which device you choose, can cost up to $400. They will cost around $35 per month to operate, but that price will also depend on the service provider you choose.
OBD-II Device
These devices are similar to dongles, but they are specifically designed to plug in to your vehicle’s OBD-II port (the connector that mechanics use to assess your vehicle’s computer diagnostics). These will provide your vehicle with a Wi-Fi network but also come with additional benefits. Because they plug in to your OBD-II port it means they will also provide you with diagnostic information on your vehicle, for example historic data on your car’s location.
These are generally cheaper than self-contained devices and cost around the same to operate depending on the model you choose.

Wi-Fi from a Permanently Installed Modem and Router

Installing a wireless modem and router in your car will guarantee the most reliable Wi-Fi connection on the road. However, it is also likely to be the most expensive and least portable option. Modem and router installation will provide your car with a stronger wireless connection than you would get from a smartphone or any other mobile hotspot device. Therefore, if multiple devices are using the Wi-Fi over a longer journey you should have far less connectivity problems. 
The downside of installing a modem and router is you are unlikely to be able to do it yourself. You will need professional help with installing the device, which will cost you money, and the device itself will cost you between $200 and $600 depending on which model you choose. The monthly operating costs will also depend on which carrier you choose. 

Connected Cars

Rather than using a device to connect to Wi-Fi when you are in your vehicle, why not buy a Wi-Fi enabled car? Obviously, it will depend on your budget, and whether you are in the market for a new car, but if you are looking for an upgrade then it could be the easiest option. Many new car models have built-in data connections, meaning that they can create their own Wi-Fi networks. 
Most car brands will have a model with built-in Wi-Fi connectivity, so if you’re searching for a new car, be sure to do your research on the cars extras or ask a salesperson about Wi-Fi enabled cars. Some popular car models with Wi-Fi built-in include:
  • Tesla Model S
  • Toyota Prius
  • Audi A3
  • BMW 5 series
  • Ford Focus
  • Lexus NX

Is Wi-Fi in your car worth it?

There are various things to consider when deciding to use Wi-Fi on the road. Many people are happy just to use the internet on their smartphone, but once you’ve decided you need to connect to the internet on a laptop or other device without a data plan then here are some considerations:
  • Costs are important – think about the initial cost of purchasing the device or car as well as potential setup costs. Can you afford it? Remember for most of the options above there will also be a recurring monthly cost or usage cost you will have to pay, make sure you compare internet deals so that you get the most suitable one for your needs.
  • Location matters – when choosing a carrier remember to check what areas their networks cover. Some carriers may have large holes in their service area where you won’t be able to connect to the internet at all. Those in rural areas are most likely to be affected by this. 
  • Stay safe – you’ve always got to mindful when driving and concentrate on the road, but you also need to be careful of your wireless network too. Remember that other cars will be able to pick up your wireless network on their devices so be sure to password protect your network. Avoid entering sensitive information to be extra safe.
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