OnStar 4G LTE networks could encounter speed bumps

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General Motors’ plan to upgrade its vehicle’s OnStar communications system to a 4G LTE wireless network in 2014 promises to deliver faster Internet speeds. However, if you believe that the change suddenly will turn your vehicle into a mobile Wi-Fi hot spot, experts whom we interviewed warn: Not so fast.

GM said Feb. 25, 2013, that its OnStar system will use AT&T’s 4G LTE wireless network instead of the existing 3G wireless network, starting with the 2015 Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC models. GM expects the 4G LTE-enabled OnStar system to be available by the end of 2014.

As a result, GM says vehicles that have a 4G LTE-enabled OnStar system might be able to deliver faster download speeds for mobile applications, real-time weather and traffic updates, and as the capability to stream movies and TV shows to factory-installed video monitors. In other words, your passengers could stream a high-definition movie with minimal buffering or interruptions, which would appeal particularly to families who take long trips.

However, experts tell Consumers Digest that the faster wireless network speed won’t necessarily deliver all of those capabilities, because the strength and presence of 4G LTE signals vary by location.

For example, 4G LTE capabilities could be spotty in rural areas, says analyst Brian Blau of market-research company Gartner. This means that you will lose movie-streaming capabilities when you travel beyond a 4G LTE signal range.

In an interview with Consumers Digest, GM spokesperson Cheryl McCarron acknowledged that 4G LTE coverage varies and that “it won’t be available everywhere that a car can go.” She says GM hasn’t determined what features will be included on the 4G LTE-enabled OnStar system.

On average, 4G LTE networks have download speeds that are 5–12 megabits per second (Mbps) vs. 1.4 Mbps on average for 3G networks, says analyst Sam Lucero of market-research company IHS.

GM will continue to use Verizon Communications’ 3G network for its OnStar system through all of its 2014 model-year vehicles. McCarron refused to tell Consumers Digest why GM chose AT&T’s 4G LTE network over Verizon’s 4G LTE network, which covers more territory nationwide than does AT&T’s 4G LTE network.

Prices for the OnStar system that uses the 4G LTE network will be announced later in 2013. Although McCarron wouldn’t disclose whether the 4G LTE-enabled OnStar system will cost more than the existing version, Lucero says it’s unlikely that OnStar will increase the price. He says increasing the price of 4G LTE-enabled system would make it more difficult for GM to keep OnStar subscribers.

OnStar customers now pay $18.95 per month for connectivity features and access to emergency services. Customers who add OnStar’s Turn-by-Turn Navigation feature to their subscription pay $28.90 per month.

– K. Fanuko