Subaru Outback's Wi-Fi Connection Not So Hot

Slow speeds and high cost make this new feature a big disappointment.

THE GIST

The car as a hot-spot is a great idea.

But there are cheaper and better broadband options available.

This week I saw a story saying that the 2011 Subaru Outback will have the option of being equipped with a Wi-Fi hotspot able to provide Internet access for 10 users.

After I got past the image of 10 people crammed clown-like into the car with their laptops and Wi-Fi-enabled devices, I tried to imagine some of the more practical applications. Perhaps this is part of a bigger plan for spreading broadband into the rural hinterlands given the four-wheel nature of the Outback. As an activist for wireless broadband in the United States, I like to promote technology that can bring us all closer to ubiquitous national coverage. Subaru is obviously trying to provide a value-added solution to a niche marketplace.

But their offer isn't as great as I had hoped.

For starters, the upload and download speeds more closely resemble the old dial-up days than current broadband Internet times. If you have a 3G connection, you can expect download speeds ranging between 400 to 800 kilobytes per second (kbps), with uploads ranging between 128 to 300 kbps. If you have 2G, the downloads will be between 120 and 200 kbps and uploads between 50 and 100 kbps. Those numbers are pathetic compared to broadband Internet speeds, which begin at 384 kbps and should rise to 100 megabytes per second for the majority of cities within America by 2012.

It is completely understandable that this is the next technological leap for automobiles after personal DVD screens -- the kids will be able to download songs, IM their friends and further ignore the parental units sitting in the front of the vehicle, which may be a welcomed outcome of the new technology. But sharing a hot spot at those slow speeds with 10 people will certainly cost you friends and only gain you frustration.

Then there is the pricing. Plain and simple, it's a lot of money. The Subaru plan will cost $534 for the first year plus $29 per gigabyte downloaded up to the fifth gigabyte, which will then cost $59. So if two kids download multiple movies during a road trip between New York City and Atlanta, and back, it's possible that they will run up a bill of $175 which would, most likely, exceed the fuel costs for that trip. And now compare that to people who own an Apple iPhone and subscribe to AT&T for as little as $30 a month for unlimited bandwidth.

Then again, with the 2011 Outback retailing for an average price of $27,000, it's likely that the owner could able afford the Wi-Fi device and fees.

I'm not one of them. And if you're not either, my advice would be to consider the Sprint Overdrive or Verizon MIFI device instead.

Glenn Strachan is an international and domestic development expert who specializes in ICT, broadband and health information systems and has traveled to 98 countries. When not Twittering (@glennstrachan) or Facebooking, he reads email on glenn@glennstrachan.com.