Renting a Wi-Fi Car

We’ve all heard it: “At Avis, we try harder.”

It was never a very specific promise, but these days, the car rental agency has something more tangible to report. Avis is trying harder to give you mobile Wi-Fi — in order to keep the kids entranced by Webkinz in the back seat, and to give you a way to log in from your guest room without paying hefty hotel fees.

The mobile-router offering known as AvisConnect launched this spring in San Francisco, San Jose and Ft. Lauderdale.

Michael Caron, Avis’ vice president of product and program development, says the program could help the car rental company stand out from the crowd. “We are in a commodity business — the car you get from my competitor is the same car you are going to get from me,” he says. Except Caron’s car will give you 24/7 wireless Internet, something the competition is not offering.

Autonet Mobile, first out of the gate as an in-car Internet service provider, developed the product for Avis. That provider’s expertise allowed Avis to go from conception to roll-out in just three months.

In cities where AvisConnect is available, customers can put it in any vehicle, high-end or low, for $10.95 a day. “You’re not going to get that price from a hotel,” Caron says. Maybe that’s because Avis is only looking to cover costs these days. Eventually, the program might be a revenue stream, he says, “but at this stage, we are not making any money off of this.”

To put the effort in context, it helps to consider Avis’ other differentiator programs. Drivers can get tolls billed automatically to their rental bill, rather than having to slow down to pitch quarters; a portable GPS program is also available to point their way; renters can borrow a chauffeur along with their wheels; and a disability program helps those in need of special services.

On top of all this, Caron says, wireless Internet seemed a logical next step: “People want access — my kids want access,” he says.

Other companies have also recognized the potential demand for mobile routers and in-car Internet. A company called WAAV, formerly Omniwav Mobile until a name change in September of last year, has two such devices on the market. The AirBox CM3 Wi-Fi router connects to 3G on the back-end, primarily through Sprint, and the AirBox X2 includes dual connections for multiple users.

The company operates in the U.S., Taiwan, Singapore and Canada.

The company brought its ideas to the car rental market in 2005 but got turned away, according to chief technical officer J.C. Fulknier, who says it was probably “too early” in the evolution of Wi-Fi to make a pitch at that point.

Rather than honing in on consumers, WAAV has been targeting the commercial sector: limousine companies, utility companies and public safety. Still, Avis’ announcement of mobile Wi-Fi gives the firm a boost. “It’s great for us,” Fulknier says. “People understand it a little bit more on the consumer side, and now the other car rental companies are calling us.”

While commercial adoption may come in time, Fulknier predicts that most activity will remain on the commercial side for the time being. “The consumer market is just harder to get into,” he says.

Avis executives candidly acknowledge the virtue of this assessment. On the one hand, they wouldn’t be launching this service if they didn’t think the public was ready. On the other hand, they are breaking even on the project, and can therefore afford to wait for a public that still may be slow on the uptake.

“The awareness piece is something we are struggling with,” Caron says.

Awareness is a funny thing in this case. People get it in a general sense — they’ve heard the word wireless often enough. But they still are shaky on the finer points.

“You talk about [mobile] Wi-Fi, and a lot of people don’t identify with that yet — the average customer thinks you still have to plug in with a jack somewhere,” Caron says. “They know they want connectivity, but they still don’t understand how they are supposed to get it. This is still new technology.”

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