4G cars are coming, but we won’t have much choice in how we connect them

4G cars are making their way to the U.S., starting first with the Audi A3 and eventually a whole fleet of GM(s gm) vehicles. Embedded LTE could soon be streaming music to our dashboards, providing real-time traffic alerts to our nav systems and downloading Thomas the Tank Engine reruns for Junior to watch in his car seat.

The car will become a new type of connected device like our smartphones and tablets, and like those gadgets our 4G cars will require data plans. But unlike the smartphone and tablet, we’re not going to have a choice on what carrier we buy those plans from. It might seem absurd, but in the U.S. our 4G cars are going to be linked to a specific carrier, just as the first three generations of iPhones were tied to AT&T.

Gemalto's LTE connected car module

Gemalto’s LTE connected car module

That’s the opposite approach to what automakers are doing in Europe. The Audi S3 debuted in Europe with a distinctly European mobile connectivity model. A slot in the dash will take any carrier’s SIM card, and the Gemalto machine-to-machine communications model embedded in Audis supports multiple European GSM, HSPA and LTE bands. You can thank Europe’s coordinated approach to mobility for that flexibility — a single module can cover almost every carrier’s network in almost every country on the continent.

But pulling such a feat off in the U.S. is much different story, said Andreas Hägele, who heads up Gemalto’s M2M portfolio. Not only does the U.S. host multiple mobile standards (CDMA and GSM), but its LTE networks are all over the radio frequency spectrum.

Each of the four major carriers has deployed their initial LTE networks on completely separate bands, and most of them are targeting equally distinct bands for future 4G expansions. Add to that the car’s need for ubiquitous coverage, and any universal module would have to support multiple 2G and 3G technologies on multiple bands. Building a single module that supports all carriers isn’t impossible, but it might as well be, Hägele said; it’s like shooting at a moving target.

“We can do it technically,” Hägele said. “It’s a question of economics on one hand, and strategy on the other.”

Connected services versus simple connectivity

Automakers aren’t selling rote connectivity. They’re selling services ranging from turn-by-turn navigation to emergency roadside assistance to telematics services like remote start. Since they’ll have to vouch for those services, many of them will be very careful about the carrier partners they pick.

GM connected car demoStarting with model year 2015 vehicles, GM will start connecting all cars sold in the U.S. to AT&T’s 2G, 3G and 4G networks. Customers will be able to buy data plans from AT&T(s t) to power in-car Wi-Fi and connect their infotainment apps, but GM is also moving its entire OnStar vehicle safety, navigation and telematics platform onto AT&T’s network. In that deal GM has stipulated AT&T sign roaming agreements with rural carriers and provide service guarantees to ensure OnStar services will work across the country. An emergency roadside assistance service doesn’t do you much good if the carrier connecting your car doesn’t have coverage where you’ve broken down.

In that scenario, GM is the service provider, not AT&T, so it shouldn’t matter to us whose network we’re connected to. For a decade, GM has relied on Verizon to power OnStar and most consumers were none the wiser. If in-car connectivity were only about powering these kind of vehicle-specific services, it wouldn’t be an issue.

But we’re entering an age where our car connectivity is enabling a plethora of apps in vehicles that aren’t provided by the automaker — a trend we’ll be tracking in detail at GigaOM’s Mobilize conference in October. But all of those services will require data plans, and the way the connected car market is evolving, we’re basically going to be held captive by a single carrier to provide us those plans.

Apple's Eyes Free in a BMW

Apple’s Eyes Free in a BMW

With today’s emerging connected car systems, many automakers have adopted a bring-you-own-connectivity model in which your smartphone provides the link back to the internet. I don’t anticipate that will always be the case, though.

As apps and user interfaces become more sophisticated and more closely tied to the vehicle’s core functions, integrated connectivity will likely take precedence over simple tethering — and it should. A radio powered by the engine’s alternator and a antenna mounted on the roof are going to deliver a much better mobile data experience than a smartphone linked to the dash by Bluetooth.

But where does that leave the consumer? If I’m an AT&T customer buying a GM vehicle, then I’m set. I merely have to attach my car to my shared data plan. But if I’m a customer of Verizon Wireless(s vz)(s vod), Sprint(s s), T-Mobile(s tmus) or one of hundred other regional or virtual operators in the U.S., then my options are much more limited.