AT&T's CruiseCast service, which launched in June, isn't the only satellite TV service for automobiles. But, it does have more channels, get more range, and have a tinier antenna than the other mobile satellite TV services that have launched to date. To get CruiseCast installed in your car, you must already have a rear seat entertainment system. The equipment (antenna and receiver) costs $1,299, and the monthly service costs $28. 1,000 vehicles in the U.S. already have the system installed.
CruiseCast visited the Tom's Guide offices to show off CruiseCast in a rental car picked up at the airport for their visit. AT&T's technician installed the system lickety-split in this Ford Expedition. Then, CruiseCast took us for a ride.
The phased array satellite antenna sits on top of the car. This one is mounted with a magnet. Other options include bracket mounts that attach to the roof rails or racks on top of a car. It weighs about three pounds. Out of the antenna comes a single cable, which combines both coaxial cable feed and power in one casing. AT&T and RaySat leased their own satellite space for the service, which covers the continental U.S. The antenna is designed to withstand a car wash.
The cable travels from the antenna into the upholstery of the car. It feeds all the way around--no cable is exposed--from the antenna to the mobile receiver set top box.
Mobile Receiver Set Top Box
The mobile receiver set top box--which is designed and built by AT&T and RaySat--can be placed anywhere inside the car. It comes with an RF remote control, and feeds an RCA cable into the rear seat entertainment unit. In luxury Maybach cars that have been outfitted with CruiseCast, the set top box typically goes in the trunk.
Rear Seat Entertainment System
CruiseCast is only compatible with cars that already have a rear seat entertainment system built in. These systems typically cost under $1,000 to install, and can be found installed in the center console or in the dashboard screen.
The quality of CruiseCast's experience is limited by the quality of the screens installed as part of your rear seat entertainment sytsem. These are typically 7-12 inches wide, and are usually built into the headrest of the front seats, or can be popped down from the ceiling of the car (in the center of the two back seats). If a car-owner opts to have the CruiseCast installed to display on the dashboard screen, the screen will not display the CruiseCast feed if the car is in motion (it is against the law to watch video while the car is moving).
The CruiseCast "guide" (which looks a lot like your cable or satellite TV channel guide) indicates how much signal the antenna is getting, and how much of a video buffer the system has stored. The maximum amount of buffer video the system can store is two minutes. So, if you must drive through a tunnel or an area between very tall buildings and lots of trees, the video won't cut out for a full two minutes. In practice, the guide usually displayed five out of six signal bars during our short road trip in the CruiseCast car in a mixed-use neighborhood.
The CruiseCast system does not come with DVR functionality, though company representatives say such a feature is "on the roadmap." While the CruiseCast system only includes one tuner (meaning the same channel has to be watched on all screens attached to the set top box), if the rear seat entertainment system includes a DVD player, a DVD can be watched on one screen, while satellite channels are displayed on the other screen.
The CruiseCast system currently offers 42 channels of TV and radio programming. Popular channels include: MSNBC, Disney, Cartoon Network Mobile, Adult Swim Mobile, Disney XD, Discovery, Discovery Kids, Animal Planet, CBS College Sports Network, NFL Network and ESPN mobile. Are you sensing a pattern?
Who Is This Fr?
It is clear that AT&T has put an emphasis on kids, and sports enthusiasts. That's because those two populations are bound to be the most eager consumers of in-car satellite TV. Kiddie entertainment, tailgating before the big game, and trucker pit stops are the most likely scenarios where people want to watch satellite TV in or near a car.
RaySat: What About WiFi?
RaySat, the satellite company behind the CruiseCast service, isn't new. Back in 2006, the company was pushing in-car Wi-Fi rather than just in-car satellite television. The company demonstrated the enormous rooftop high speed Internet antenna at the Consumer Electronics Show in January of that year. What happened to it? Apparently satellite-based Internet is a tougher technological feat to pull off than providng TV channels. Perhaps in a few years consumers (and RaySat with AT&T) will be ready add Internet access to the CruiseCast package--along with two channels tuners and a DVR. Would that make the service more enticing to you?