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A Brave New World for Mobile Satellite Technology

Science fiction from the 1950s envisioned a future populated by flying cars that drove themselves, unaided by their human occupants. While reality has fallen short of that lofty goal, modern automotive technology does offer some pretty cool features related to mobile satellite-wireless technology, and industry experts say still more advancements are just around the corner.

Several factors bode well for the future of the mobile satellite TV market, according to experts. Among them, the technology for finding and locking in satellite signals has improved remarkably in recent years, even as the cost of those systems has gone down. Perhaps even more notably, customers have become much more knowledgeable about the products and comfortable using them, says Aaron Engberg, manager of the mobile products division for Winegard, based in Burlington, Iowa.

Even though satellite domes are increasingly becoming a standard feature on new units, Engberg says he believes demand for aftermarket mobile satellite systems will continue to grow at a healthy clip in the coming years, fed in part by retrofitting older RVs and also consumers who choose to upgrade the basic units that come with their new RV.

Data for the number of mobile satellite systems sold each year is difficult to come by, given that most of the major players are private companies that don’t release their numbers. Forecasts for future sales aren’t readily available, although industry experts do expect the number of units shipped and sold to increase.

Engberg anticipates there will be challenges and opportunities for mobile satellite makers like his company in coming years in terms of being able to track an ever-growing number of new satellites and also the need to upgrade technology to handle the growth of high definition (HD) programming on satellite.

Of particular interest to today’s more tech-savvy RVers is mobile two-way Internet. Engberg says Winegard and others are working hard to make the technology more widely available to customers at a lower price point, and he anticipates that in the near future they’ll be able to make that happen.

The Future of GPS Navigation

A number of other technological breakthroughs related to satellite-wireless also are in the works. Experts who spoke with RV PRO say they believe GPS-enabled navigation systems that are able to provide “real-time” traffic updates are likely to be the next big thing.

“This market (for real-time traffic) is definitely headed for growth,” says Rahul Ganju, an analyst with research and consulting firm Frost & Sullivan in San Antonio. Navigation systems offering real-time traffic first came onto the market in late 2005, and Ganju notes that by 2006 an estimated 100,000 people were signed up with subscription services to receive traffic updates in real time. The number of subscribers is only expected to grow in the years ahead, he adds.

Still, there are some hurdles to overcome. The ability of real-time traffic services to provide useful, timely information needs to improve, Ganju says, noting his own research places the accuracy of major services somewhere between 60 and 70 percent. Also, growth prospects for the short term may be limited until it becomes clear what type of cost structure the industry will adopt, Ganju says. Specifically, will users be charged a monthly fee, one lifetime fee, or some other option?

For the near future, Ganju anticipates most of the growth in navigation systems featuring real-time traffic will occur in the aftermarket, as OEMs are taking a more cautious, wait-and-see approach.

Steve Koenig, a senior analyst with the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) in Arlington, Va., shares Ganju’s assessment that real-time traffic is likely to become increasingly popular with motorists and RVers in the next few years, particularly as the cost of GPS systems equipped to provide it decline in price. Koenig also foresees more growth for GPS-enabled navigation systems offering location-based services, such as systems that can tell users how to find the nearest Wal-Mart, gas station or other points of interest.

While forecasting the future is always a tricky business, one thing that seems very clear is that, when it comes to the aftermarket, portable navigation devices are going to continue to be much more popular than in-dash models for the foreseeable future, according to Koenig. Data from the CEA shows that 3.4 million portable navigation devices were shipped in 2006, compared to 200,000 in-dash systems. The ratio of portable systems to in-dash ones is currently about 20-to-1, up from 7-to-1 in 1995, Koenig notes.

The CEA forecasts good growth for portable navigation systems, with an estimated 9 million units to ship in 2010.

While the near-term outlook for automotive navigation systems is bright, longer-term the picture is murkier, according to Koenig. The potentially inhibiting factor is cell phones, interestingly enough. Koenig says it’s possible that cell phones in the future will be equipped with technology allowing them to act as fully functional GPS navigation devices, including the ability to receive real-time traffic updates.

For RV dealers that might be considering retailing GPS systems, Koenig has a bit of advice. “I think the RV dealers are well positioned because they understand the RV industry — they’re better able to connect with RVers, to offer them a solution selling approach more than a Best Buy. The challenge for the RV dealer is to stay current with the technology. If they (dealers) can’t understand it, customers may go to Best Buy or Circuit City.”

Koenig suggests GPS systems equipped with large screens may be a good choice for dealers to retail because they are easier for RVers to read and because most RVs have the space on their dashboard to accommodate them.

While the market for GPS-enabled navigation systems is strong for the near term, Koenig and Ganju agree that the market for aftermarket satellite radio systems is fairly flat, primarily because the devices are increasingly becoming a standard feature on new cars and to a lesser extent motorhomes. The CEA forecasts 4.5 million aftermarket satellite radio systems will ship in 2010, up modestly from 4.3 million in 2007.