Gigaom

What's Keeping the 4G Car out of the U.S.


A white Audi A3 Sportback 2.0 and two Audi A3s

Courtesy Audi AG

A white Audi A3 Sportback 2.0 and two Audi A3s

The world’s first LTE-connected car, courtesy of Audi (AUDVF), began rolling out of the factory and onto lots in Europe on Thursday. The Audi S3 Sportback now comes with an option for an embedded Sierra Wireless LTE module as part of its technology package, making it the first production car to come with fully integrated 4G connectivity.

U.S. customers will get an LTE option on the A3 Sedan, as well, but they’ll have to wait until next spring. A three-door plug-in hybrid version of the S3 Sportback is also scheduled for U.S. release in 2015. Audi spokesman Brad Stertz tells GigaOM that now that its first 4G car is in production, the German carmaker will roll out the feature to the rest of the fleet quickly, including its entire A3 line in Europe starting in November.

What’s particularly interesting is how signing up for in-vehicle 4G connected car service will be different in the U.S. and Europe, mimicking the way those different regions buy phone service. In Europe, 4G Audi owners can use any carrier’s network. They just need to insert a data SIM card into the dash.

In the U.S., though, Audi connectivity will most likely be tied to a specific operator, Stertz says, just like most of our smartphones are optimized for specific carriers. That makes some sense, given the complexity of U.S. LTE networks.

While in Europe most carriers are deploying their networks on three common bands, in the U.S. every operator is using a different LTE frequency. Just as Apple (AAPL) and Samsung Electronics (005930:KS) make separate versions of the iPhone and Galaxy for different carriers, Audi and Sierra Wireless (SWIR) may need to supply different modules for those different networks.

Stertz says Audi is still negotiating with U.S. operators and will make an announcement about which carrier or carriers it will partner with at a later date.

Even though Audi won’t have its first U.S. 4G car until next year, it will likely beat all its rivals to market. General Motors (GM) plans to make AT&T (T) LTE standard in all cars starting in model year 2015. BMW ((BMW:GR) has developed an LTE hotspot accessory car owners can use to create miniature wireless LAN within the vehicle, but the automaker hasn’t started selling it yet. The accessory approach also means it’s not integrated with the car’s infotainment system, so you can connect your gadgets in the car but not the car itself.

Audi is going fully integrated from the get-go. The S3 and forthcoming A3 will use their LTE chips to link its on-board nav system to the cloud with access to Google (GOOG) Earth and Streetview. Drivers can access social media networks Facebook (FB) and Twitter with voice commands, though its Audi Connect platform is still light on other apps. And the LTE connection can also be redistributed to other devices in the car through Wi-Fi.

How you’ll wind up paying for the service is still an open question. Many people will balk at the thought of buying a separate mobile plan for their cars. That’s why I suspect we’ll see carriers include connected cars in their data share plans. You wind up paying a $5 to $10 monthly device fee to maintain your car’s mobile connection and then draw from the same data bucket shared by your smartphone and tablet.

Also from GigaOM:

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Leaked NSA Audit Reveals Thousands of ‘Unintentional’ Surveillance Incidents in the U.S.

Kevin covers mobile broadband, carriers and wireless infrastructure for Gigaom.

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