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In-Car 3G Audio Could Cost You--But How Much?

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MyLincoln Touch - 2011 Lincoln MKX

MyLincoln Touch - 2011 Lincoln MKX

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The future of in-car audio will revolve around plug-and-play portables--that's the take of many automakers like Ford and Kia, where voice-controlled audio and mobile-phone links are being knitted into current and future cars while old-school features like CD changes are being pruned from valuable dash space.

The next step seems to be the development of connectivity for audio apps like those on Apple's iPod and iPhone. The iPod can store its music and video locally, but even Apple has acknowledged that putting media "in the air" is an appealing solution to owning media and delivering it, whether it's in the car, the home, or through earbuds. That's been tacity confirmed by Apple's acquisition of Lala, a streaming audio service it later shut down, possibly in advance of an "air iTunes" offering yet to come.

But what happens when thousands of users start streaming music over the 3G band through apps like Pandora--and run into the 2GB data caps that are already in place for AT&T customers, and likely on the way for Verizon subscribers, too?

According to Pandora, it's an issue that will affect some users. Like AT&T, though, Pandora's executives believe only a small percentage of users will consume so much over-the-air music, that they'll be forced into more expensive data plans.

"The reality is that streaming music on Pandora uses far less data than you might think," says Pandora founder and strategy guru Tim Westergren. "Only a very small percentage of our listeners will be affected by a data cap."

Pandora's team says the app has been designed to stream music in the most efficient way possible, to minimize that possibility. However, there's still the real possibility--or certainty--that a significant number of users will be affected by data caps. AT&T suggests 2 percent of its customers are in that higher-priced niche; Pandora believes far fewer of their current users, less than a percent, would fall into the "extreme user" category.

That sidesteps the issue of adoption: as more technology becomes available, more people will adopt streaming music as an alternative to media players with big built-in music storage, especially if it's blended with a social-media, music-sharing function.

For their part, automakers have sidestepped the 3G issue as well. Ford says it's moving away from DIN-style hardware to plug-in media, and leaving consumers to gauge what's best for their budgets. Kia's UVO system, which shares some Microsoft-based code, seems positioned to do the same.

While it seems a non-issue today, it's a no-brainer to predict a future iteration of media apps with richer music streams that also deliver video and other information. Ford's SYNC system is positioned to do just that; vehicles like the 2011 Lincoln MKX already offer satellite-data streams for stock tickers, weather and sports scores. An app provider offering that information, plus music and video (think Sirius BackseatTV), and even navigation functions, could put users ever closer to the data caps becoming standard industry practice in the 3G marketplace.

Moore's Law may be dying, but inexpensive, in-car audio streaming means someone--data providers, automakers or both--will have to find a way to breathe new life into it.

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