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Rogers-Sprint partnership aims to keep people connected while on the road

High-speed Internet access will be the next option for new vehicles, as wireless in Canada makes the move from homes to cars.

Toronto's Rogers and U.S. wireless carrier Sprint are teaming up to bring wireless service to automakers, potentially reaching more than one million Canadians who buy new vehicles each year, Rogers said Thursday.

Canadians at home are keen users of all types of wireless devices, from cellphones to tablets to cameras, said Mansell Nelson, vice-president of advanced business solutions at Rogers Communications (TSX:RCI.B), the country's largest wireless provider.

"Why can't I connect them while I'm in my car?" said Nelson.

Under the agreement, automakers deploying Sprint's Velocity platform - developed specifically for the auto industry - would use Rogers' wireless networks, including its high-speed Long-Term Evolution (LTE) network.

Drivers with the option could then use a touchscreen on the dashboard to access weather or accident alerts, and receive customized packages of news and sports. Internet accessibility could also open the possibility of passengers watching TV on demand while they travel, said Nelson.

The wireless option is expected to be available in mid-2014 in Canada, but there are no details yet on which auto brands will offer it, or how much it will add to the cost of a vehicle or Internet packages.

Several automakers, such as GM, are already experimenting with Internet connectivity in vehicles and are advertising their plans to ramp up the offering in next year's models.

But it's not an option that will appeal to all drivers, said technology analyst Duncan Stewart .

"Given how many people have smartphones already, how really necessary is this?" said Duncan, the head of research for technology, media and telecommunications at Deloitte Canada.

A CRTC monitoring report released Thursday showed that, in 2012, the number of Canadian wireless subscribers grew by 1.8 per cent to 27.9 million. More than two out of four people owned a smartphone and more than one out of four owned a tablet, according to the report.

There is also a safety issue that concerns the Canadian Police Association.

"It's not really how good of a driver you are or how well you can multi-task in a car, it's your ability to be distracted while you're engaged in these other activities," said Tom Stamatakis, president of the association.

Auto consultant Dennis DesRosiers agrees that the move to make cars "communications and entertainment devices" can increase the risk for drivers.

"The controversy around a lot of this is driver distraction," said DesRosiers, of Toronto-area DesRosiers Automotive Consultants Inc.

But automakers are responding with options such as voice commands and hands-free services, he said.

Consumers, ultimately, will drive the demand.

"If consumers embrace a technology, the automaker follows very quickly in lockstep," said DesRosiers.


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