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In-car connectivity in Canada lags far behind U.S.

About two-thirds of vehicles in Canada this year will have embedded telematics, compared with about three-quarters in the United States.

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Drivers in the United States are seeing a new technological trend creeping into their vehicles: unlimited cellular connectivity and usage. Canadian drivers aren't so lucky, at least for now.

General Motors and Jaguar Land Rover last month became the first two auto makers to offer drivers in-vehicle 4G LTE wireless with no monthly usage caps, both at $20 (U.S.) a month. The built-in services, which effectively turns cars into moving WiFi hotspots, are being delivered through AT&T, the second-largest wireless network provider in the United States.

While GM's unlimited OnStar usage costs the equivalent of $27 (Canadian) in the United States, Canadian drivers are limited to choosing between one gigabyte for $15, 4 GB for $35 or 10 GB for $70. Jaguar Land Rover's Canadian division confirms that no major carriers are offering unlimited data usage for vehicles, and the company doesn't anticipate the situation changing any time soon.

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"In the American market, it makes sense, but it's unlikely we'd see anything like that here," says Brahm Eiley, president of Victoria-based Convergence Research Group. "The wireless market in the United States is and always has been completely different than Canada's."

Both manufacturers said built-in connectivity is increasingly being used for a number of in-car applications and is rapidly becoming a key factor in new-vehicle purchasing decisions. Chevrolet, for one, said its customers streamed more than 17.5 million hours of video in their vehicles last year. Over all, data usage via OnStar 4G LTE tripled over 2015.

"We have contractors bidding [for] jobs in their Silverados, families streaming movies in their Suburbans and Malibus, and everyone tapping into the cloud for music," said Alan Batey, global head of Chevrolet, in a statement.

The unlimited in-car options mirror what's happening in the broader U.S. wireless market. AT&T and its three main competitors, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint have, in recent months, been engaged in a game of one-upmanship when it comes to data offers.

All four are trying to lure customers with offers featuring unlimited usage. Verizon is the largest U.S. provider, with approximately 142 million customers, followed by AT&T with 131 million, T-Mobile at 67 million and Sprint with 58 million, according to Jackdaw Research.

Canada, in comparison, has about 30 million total wireless subscribers, according to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. Bell, Rogers and Telus control more than 90 per cent of the market, with each having roughly an equal share of customers.

Numerous studies have found Canada to have among the highest wireless prices in the world. A study by research firm Nordicity last year, for example, found Canadians paid, on average, $41.08 for an entry-level cellphone plan, or considerably more than the $17.15 subscribers paid in Germany.

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Canada's big carriers typically don't offer unlimited data-usage plans. Rogers's biggest offering for smartphones in Ontario, for example, is 60 GB at $375 a month.

The U.S. market is more competitive, Eiley says, because T-Mobile and Sprint are considerably smaller than Verizon and AT&T and are, therefore, more likely to rock the boat with consumer-friendly deals.

In-car connectivity, also known as telematics, looks to be lagging in Canada as a result. About two-thirds of vehicles in Canada this year will have embedded telematics, compared with about three-quarters in the United States, according to IHS Markit.

"There is a bit of resistance there," says Colin Bird, senior auto-tech analyst for IHS Markit. "It's not as robust."

In the long term, analysts expect car manufacturers to effectively override wireless prices – regardless of market – in order to add features that consumers are seeking. Many drivers are demanding over-the-air updates of entertainment systems to keep them current; this requires connectivity.

Safety regulators are also increasingly requiring connectivity. The European Parliament, for example, passed the eCall mandate in 2015. As of 2018, all new cars sold in the European Union will have a module that will automatically dial a dedicated phone number and transmit its location to emergency services.

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Car makers may eventually swallow the cost of wireless service themselves or pass it on to consumers in the form of higher sticker prices.

Either way, IHS Markit expects the differences in telematics installations between countries to level out over time. The firm sees 95 per cent of new cars in Canada having connectivity by 2022, compared with 98 per cent in the United States.

Frost and Sullivan is more conservative with its forecasts, expecting global installations of about 70 per cent by 2022. But the research firm also expects ubiquitous vehicle connectivity over time.

"It's almost a given that most cars will be connected," principal analyst Ronald Gruia says.

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About the Author

Peter Nowak has been writing about technology for 15 years, with a focus on trends and how they affect the world. He worked at The Globe and Mail between 1997 and 2004 before moving to China and then New Zealand, where he won the award for best technology reporter at the New Zealand Herald. More

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