Ford: WiFi on wheels coming with SYNC system upgrade

Ford on Monday announced that the next generation of its Microsoft-developed SYNC communications system will be compatible with USB broadband modems, and thus upgradeable.

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    Passengers-only: In-car WiFi could make long road trips less boring for the back seat.
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What's better than free WiFi at the airport? What about WiFi on the open road?

Ford announced Monday that it was bringing that possibility closer to reality with the launch of its next-generation "SYNC" mobile communications package.

Drivers plug their own broadband modem into the car's USB port, and the system does the rest – creating a network and securing it against piggybacking tailgaters.

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Besides the obvious surfing while driving concerns, some, including this blogger, might wonder why Ford didn't just partner with a mobile broadband provider and bundle a modem, WiFi antennas, and, say, two years of service as a factory-installed option. Ford's Doug VanDagens explains in a statement:

The speeds with which technology is evolving, particularly on the wireless front, makes obsolescence a real problem. We've solved that problem by making SYNC work with just about any technology you plug into it. By leveraging a user's existing hardware, which can be upgraded independent of SYNC, we've helped ensure 'forward compatibility' with whatever connectivity technology comes next.

So, rather than locking an owner into a standard that may fall out of favor before a car's model year even arrives, Ford has left it to the owner to supply the Web link of their own choosing. Also, though it goes without saying, cars are mobile. If Ford had signed a deal with any one of the major providers, problems of access could have hampered sales. Remember the "There's a Map for That" fiasco?

Up till now, on-the-road WiFi has been pretty limited. BoltBus and other low-cost New York-based bus lines have touted WiFi since 2008, but again, you're on a bus. Chrysler offered a system similar to Ford's a few years back, but the $450 option with a $35 activation fee and $29 monthly subscription turned buyers off. Since then, more mobile providers have rolled out mobile broadband cards, bringing access and hardware costs down.

This latest offering from Ford sounds pretty cool, but we're a little bummed that the system is BYO-modem. Yes, the access concerns are there, but SYNC would've been more of a draw if Ford had been able to tie down an agreement similar to the one Amazon and Barnes & Noble wrangled for their Kindle and Nook eBook readers. (Buyers pay for the device up-front, and a wireless Web connection is theirs for as long as they own the device. No subscriptions, no fees. It's magical.)

Would that work with the higher-volume car market, and for full-on video-streaming Web use rather than just basic browsing and book downloads? It's definitely a stretch, but we're guess that the first car company to do it will have a tough time keeping cars on its lots.

One thing's for sure in all of this – stopping at McDonald's on road trips for their just-announced free WiFi just became irrelevant. From now on, it's just McNuggets and milkshakes that'll have us pulling over. (Just, please, stay away from the eggnog flavor.)

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Woluld in-car WiFi be enough of a draw to make you switch brands? Is it a moot point with 3G smartphone access? Are we all a little too obsessed with staying connected? Leave a comment below, and catch up with us on Twitter.

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