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Upstart targets backseat riders with mobile hot spots

For the young social networking addicts of the world, one of the last vestiges of computer-deficient spaces-the moving vehicle-may soon be MySpace-enabled through Wi-Fi. Backseat elbowing could be replaced with the tip-tapping of fingers on a keyboard.
Mobile hot spots essentially use a Wi-Fi router to turn a public bus or personal car into an Internet access point, using cellular networks for backhaul. The technology is still on the fringes of wireless and not widely adopted, and some carriers have been wary of certifying devices for use on their networks for the simple reason that if mobile hot spots become widely used, they could become bandwidth hogs for applications such as streaming video and overload the networks.
Companies have been toying with the idea for years, according to analyst Peter Jarich of Current Analysis, but only now are commercial deployments starting to appear in public transportation, and among transportation shuttles at Yahoo Inc. and Google Inc. Seattle-based Junxion supported those three deployments.

A consumer play
Meanwhile, a new, unproven player called AutoNet Mobile Inc. plans to begin selling a consumer-facing mobile hot spot this spring. First, the company plans to partner with car rental company Avis, enabling rental cars to be equipped with AutoNet’s mobile hot-spot technology, which involves a notebook-sized router placed in the car, typically in the trunk. Consumers will be able to buy the device for $400 plus a $50 monthly subscription fee, and multiple users in the vehicle can connect via the router.
Sterling Pratz, CEO of AutoNet Mobile, said the company’s goal is to become “the new media center for cars, so the lifestyle of the Internet can coincide with the car lifestyle.” AutoNet is targeting what it calls the “backseat” demographic-passengers in any vehicle who would rather surf the Net than read or play license-plate bingo.
Young wireless users, want to be connected no matter where they are, he said. And while AutoNet has tested devices such as Sony’s PSP, the company has found that instead of gaming or streaming video, “kids would rather do social networking. If they have a 25-minute drive, they’re going to get on to MySpace, tell their friends and do all that stuff,” Pratz said.
AutoNet’s coverage map is identical to that of Verizon Wireless. (Pratz declined to name AutoNet’s carrier, and Verizon Wireless did not respond to requests for information on its stance toward wholesaling data services.)
Pratz said that the company may end up with more than one network host, but that it would prefer to work with one carrier because of the possibilities for future innovations. AutoNet said the equipment that will be ready this spring.
Still, Current Analysis’ Jarich said, with technologies such as 3G PC cards, WiMAX, mesh networks and fixed Wi-Fi hotspots widely available or on the verge of being so, mobile hot spots have a lot to prove.
“Why is this so much better than anything else? That’s the case that needs to be made,” Jarich said.

The enterprise play
Junxion is taking a different tact. The company works with Cingular Wireless L.L.C. and Sprint Nextel Corp. for backhaul, although the company had to do a lot of initial work to convince carriers to certify its devices. Sprint Nextel in particular has been supportive of Junxion’s efforts, according to John Daly, co-founder and VP of business development and marketing at Junxion.
“Sprint is absolutely saying, ‘Put it on the Autobahn. Go for it. Use it. We’ve got spectrum. What we want is, we want to see it’s not going to take our network down, it’s not going to be that disruptive . we can control this,'” Daly said.
Rather than appeal to the consumer, Junxion has focused on business deployments-and here, Daly said, the company is experiencing “a little frustration” because carrier sales people don’t always have the know-how or patience to convince a customer that a mobile hot-spot deployment is a good solution, when they’re focused on making their quotas and don’t understand how Junxion integrates with legacy systems. One of Junxion’s strengths, Daly said, is its remote management for I.T. managers. The product is used for landline back-up at retailers, for monitoring automatic teller machines and even by law enforcement for remote cameras.
“Pretty much every major fast-food chain that you can think of is at least trying Junxion right now,” he added.


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