Is in-car internet radio a reality ?

Is in car internet radio a reality ?A few years ago I bought a DAB radio. At the time it was pretty expensive but the guy in the shop told me it would offer more choice and a crisp sound. I took it home and quickly realised it was pretty rubbish. Only a small amount of the local radio stations would work and, if I did take it upstairs and plonk it against the window with the aerial up, I still couldn’t get some of the local stations that came through perfectly well on FM everywhere else in the house.

In the end I switched to an internet radio. It sits in the kitchen and offers a massive choice of streaming stations from all over the world. I turn it on and it just works. No aerial, no drop-outs and I can get all the stations and podcasts too.


What happens when you get in the car though? Well, I do a lot of driving. Most of my hands-on videos are recorded in the car and I spend around two hours plodding around motorways every day. My car has a CD player which doesn’t “do” MP3 CD’s and an iPod dock which obviously doesn’t “do” my HTC Desire. Each day I have a choice of various local and national FM radio stations or one of the many CD’s that slide around the glovebox.

Should I get a new car stereo? Well, I’ve already been put off DAB due to the reception issues and some broadcasters have actually shut down their DAB stations because it’s “not an economically viable platform”. Up until now I’ve used a small FM transmitter to send tunes from my phone to the car stereo, but it’s a bit fiddly so I installed a 3.5mm AUX input instead. Today I decided to try listening to streaming internet radio (instead of the MP3’s on my phone) with the Samsung Galaxy Ace. Using the TuneIn Radio app I used the rather excellent Three mobile network to drive home whilst listening to a 128k audio stream. It dropped out a couple of times during the 1 hour journey but the quality was spot on and, just like the internet radio at home, I had a choice of many thousands of stations.

Is it a viable alternative to DAB ? Well, there’s more choice and, at a guess, the coverage is far better. The only issue is data consumption. Sure, you can choose a lower-quality stream such as a 32k or 48k stream but, if I’m honest, they sound rubbish.

In the video I found that the higher-quality 128K steam consumed around 1MB per minute. If I listen to streaming music for 2 hours a day (an hour to work, an hour back), this equals 120MB a day. Do this for five days a week and you’re looking at around 600MB per week. That’s roughly 2.7GB per month, so you’re instantly above most of the 1GB caps offered by many mobile networks.

To be honest the only network that could do this for me is Three with their “One Plan”. If an internet radio could be built into a car with a monthly charge of £15 per month (the same as the cheapest Pay As You Go One Plan) then I firmly believe it’d prove successful. Think of it as a European alternative to the American Sirius Satellite Radio.

Perhaps I’m day-dreaming a little. Until they do make internet car radios I’ll stick with my phone and a healthy data plan. I can listen to any station I want and use it a normal smartphone too.

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  • Minis can get internet radio if you have an iPhone and MiniConnect. They’re bringing it to BMW in April too, with BMWConnect.

  • Dibbs

    not much use for me, I’ve got no phone signal for proably 30% of my 15 mile commute.

    • el_duderino

      I agree. Surely data connections are much less reliable than DAB reception? I’ve had DAB in my car for the last year and was doubtful about it but driving around the North East as I do I’ve only ever driven through a couple of tiny blackspots. On a drive from Newcastle to London/ the South West I’ve listened to 6 Music and/ or Sports Extra the whole way without a single breakdown in signal. My own experience is that the DAB signal is pretty good on the road but still suffers inside buildings.

      I haven’t had a phone that can sustain perfect streaming of music or radio on the move without interruption over the course of hours.

  • The clever bit about radio is that its broadcast – tens of thousands of users share the same signal, millions probably in conurbations. The problem with using the internet to pull radio (or to stream in general) is that the current systems in use are poor at efficiently sharing the available bandwidth – so basically if we all used wireless data we’d none of us have a good experience and, to some extent, the same is true of broadband although there you can add more “cables” whereas the available wireless space is finite (though we get smarter at moving the data through it).

    Pointedly however my experience of DAB is the reverse of yours – the internet radio worked, but it was not pleasant to make it do so and was slow and clunky whereas I’ve got an original Evoke in my kitchen that has worked wonderfully for a long time and similarly we throughly enjoyed the DAB radio in our old car (its now sitting on the shelf behind me – but though the new car lacks DAB it does have a generic USB connection and will play the phone’s media when connected via bluetooth).

    Fundamentally, in my view, whilst its technically clever its the “wrong” solution to the problem… I don’t know, maybe the available bandwidth over mobile will increase to the point where its not an issue and coverage will achieve blanket levels almost everywhere. Or maybe we’ll find a way to sensibly multicast broadcast events that all the parties involved will support.

  • I’ll declare my hand first of all. I work for a commercial radio station that’s been busy building plenty of radio apps for all the mobile platforms. And since we broadcast music nationally on AM, it’s not surprising that listeners prefer to listen via a digital platform.

    The problem with streaming on 3G is that the networks just don’t seem to be able to cope. On my 20 minute train journey in London, I can hear a constant DAB signal, but my phone signal varies between strong 3G to no data (but phone reception) to nothing at all. The practicalities are that you can listen with some success in a fixed location, but you really need WiFi.

    With the explosion in predicted data consumption, and the growth of smartphone ownership, I’m not a all convinced that the mobile networks can keep up with the demand. And streaming audio (or heaven forbid, video) really doesn’t help.

    In your piece above you refer to a 1GB cap offered by most networks. I think you need to revise that down to 500MB. No wonder that O2 is building a free WiFi network. It’ll take the load off 3G.

    For a live service, broadcasting via AM, FM, DAB or whatever, is much more efficient.

    I wouldn’t pretend that DAB coverage is perfect, but it’s improving. The BBC has recently turned on some new transmitters. And in London, coverage has recently improved.

    Until we get a new mobile data technology with significantly greater bandwidth, then broadcast will be the most efficient and workable solution for listening to live radio.

  • Tpkidd3

    I live in the States and dropped my XM/Sirius radio about a year ago for Pandora. The experience has been 98% positive. With the exception of a 20km stretch of highway I drive on holiday, we have not had a coverage or capacity problem. My US carrier, Verizon, doesn’t cap my data. But they will slow down the speed if I use more than 4gb per month. Which isn’t a problem as long as I am not tethering my phone for network service.
    My Motorola Droid 855 has an auto dock that I leave in the car. Plugging the phone into my stereo’s aux port, plugging in the power, and tapping the Pandora icon only takes 5-seconds when I get in the car.
    An advantage of using my Droid for navigation, phone, and radio is that the device will pause (not mute) the music to give turn-by-turn or while answering a call.

  • Will Jones

    I’m using a Viewpad7 Android tablet in the car, it takes power off an adaptor from the car and there is an audio-out connection to a small amplifier tucked away in the glove-box.

    The ISP connection comes from a £10 a monthly “all you can eat” deal with ‘3’ (3G mobile-phone4 network).  The main roads/motorways are well covered by the phone-network, as are most of the areas I drive.

    Thosands of radio stations from all over the world, including my local neighbourhood station wherever I go.  I can’t fault it.

  • Dean

    You could try giffgaff payg – they have a truly uncapped plan for £12 a month with a rolling 1 month topup. But I am not convinced that the 3g coverage will work very well away from the motorways. You mention three. so i guess you are in south somewhere (as three is terrible midlands and up) ;-(