Is It Worth Investing in Wireless Internet for Your Car?

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Yes, wireless internet for your car is a thing. In fact, newer models often feature built-in Wi-Fi. While smartphone-enabled mobile hotspots can help you when you’re on the go and in a pinch, investing in a more robust, data-friendly solution may be worthwhile. If buying a new car isn’t in the cards, mobile hotspots, Wi-Fi-enabled OBD II devices, and mobile routers can solve the desire for on-the-go internet for most motorists. 

So, what are the pros and cons of these mobile Wi-Fi solutions? And, ultimately, is investing in wireless internet for your car worthwhile? Let’s find out.

What Are Mobile Wi-Fi Hotspots?

Equipped with rechargeable batteries, Wi-Fi hotspots are portable devices that wirelessly emit an internet signal to anyone within a certain radius — so long as the user has the hotspot’s password. While these hotspots allow multiple devices to connect to the internet at once, they usually have a limited bandwidth. What does that mean for you? Well, if multiple people are trying to stream videos simultaneously, the connection might lag a bit. 

Like cell phones, the speed of the mobile internet connection is measured in gigahertz, with the newest models boasting incredibly fast 5G internet speeds. For most people, however, a slightly slower — and less expensive — 4G model will serve their basic needs. And, yes, that includes video streaming.

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Another thing to keep in mind? These devices require internet service — most commonly offered by cell phone companies — to function. The monthly cost of said internet plans vary from company to company, but, on the bright side, many providers offer steep discounts to customers who bundle a car Wi-Fi plan with their existing cell phone service. For example, new customers can expect to pay $20 per month for car Wi-Fi at AT&T, but for customers who already have cell service via AT&T that price drops down to $10 per month. 

Although “unlimited” data is a common offering, many Wi-Fi providers throttle data speeds at certain data usage thresholds. AT&T, for example, reduces internet speeds after a customer surpasses 22GB of usage in a month. For reference, that’s equivalent to streaming about eight hours of high-definition video. Moreover, motorists should note that while some hotspots work with a variety of networks, others only work with specific networks, which may help you narrow down your selection. 

So, how much does the actual device cost? Like anything else, it varies. For example, the Netgear Aircard 790s, a top-of-the-line model that works with most internet providers and boasts an 11-hour battery life, retails for $299. Motorists looking to spend a little less may sacrifice battery life, but some other standout options include Verizon’s $95 Ellipsis JetPack, which has a 10-hour battery life, or Alcatel’s 4G hotspot, a $59 model that has just a 6-hour battery life and works exclusively with the service provider T-Mobile.

Easy to set up and relatively inexpensive, the biggest drawback when it comes to Wi-Fi hotspots is that the internet service is only as good as the area’s cell service. So, if you drive through a “dead zone,” your hotspot’s internet will falter, too.

What Is an OBD II Device?

OBD II devices are mobile hotspots that receive power from the car’s OBD II port. Located underneath the steering wheel, this port was initially made for diagnostic equipment. In fact, all cars made after 1996 have OBD II ports, so this is a solid option for someone with an older car. As an added bonus, some OBD II devices can recharge via your vehicle’s cigarette lighter or USB port.

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As is the case with Wi-Fi hotspots, OBD II devices require motorists to purchase monthly internet service from a cell service provider, so you’ll be paying for two elements — the service and the device itself. Currently, HUM is a popular OBD II option. While HUM costs $99, Verizon does offer an installment plan and internet service bundle, making this a user-friendly option. 

In addition to providing Wi-Fi, OBD II devices are also diagnostic as well as a means of measuring driver safety stats. To this end, parents often use these devices to track their teen driver’s performance. While this might be handy for newer drivers, this ability may also present a security risk; some experts in the field of data safety fear that connecting to the internet via the car’s diagnostic system could leave motorists vulnerable to cyberattacks.

Can You Get a Wireless Internet Router for Your Car?

The short answer? Yes. But motorists should note that a car-friendly internet router will require professional installation from a technically inclined mechanic. Installing a router is essentially a means of “upfitting” your car to have the built-in Wi-Fi that many newer models feature. While this is the most expensive solution by a long shot, it’s also the most permanent, and, in some ways, the most practical. 

How expensive are we talking? Well, quality car Wi-Fi routers cost anywhere from $200 to $800. Our recommendation is to opt for a Netgear router — no matter the model or speed, Netgear boasts reliable, quality options. On top of buying the router, you’ll also pay a mechanic to install it. On the bright side, the internet service will come from the car itself, which means strong signals while you’re inside your vehicle. 

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How Do the Options Compare?

When all is said and done, the best option depends on an individual motorist’s needs. OBD II and mobile hotspots are less expensive, but they’re also both less reliable. Routers, on the other hand, are a more costly investment, but motorists don’t have to worry about the internet faltering, which may make the upfront costs worthwhile. 

While the average person can probably get by with a mobile hotspot or OBD II device — both of which offer a solid amount of gigs of high-speed internet per month — folks with larger families or drivers who rely on a stable connection for work may benefit from a router. The bottom line? Before adding anything to your cart, be sure to really assess your needs.