Saturday, November 25, 2006

OnStar will be disconnected from some cars

Tuesday, November 21, 2006
OnStar will be disconnected from some cars
All models before 2002, and some newer, will lose service due to old technology.
Ken Belson / New York Times

For the last decade, OnStar has promoted itself as a paragon of convenience and peace of mind for car owners. Best known for its ability to bail out customers in a jam -- and even make an automatic call for help when an air bag has been deployed in an accident -- the service has about 4 million subscribers.

OnStar makes its pitch in a series of alarming radio advertisements that use recordings of actual emergency calls to demonstrate how operators in an OnStar call center are standing by to summon an ambulance, open a car with a child locked inside or track a vehicle that has been stolen. At the push of a button, the operators give directions or act as concierges, pointing to the closest gas station or Chinese restaurant.

But the operators will soon be signing off for some of OnStar's longstanding customers. The dropped connection is a result of a little-known decision by the Federal Communications Commission in 2002 that allows cell phone companies to shut down their analog networks beginning in February 2008.

The decision will affect not only mobile phone users in rural America and other places where digital networks have yet to be built, but also hundreds of thousands of subscribers with older cars whose OnStar systems rely on those analog networks. Some subscribers with 2002 model year or newer cars can have their cars converted to digital equipment, or their cars may already be equipped with the needed hardware.

OnStar, which was a $199 option when they bought their vehicles, will become largely obsolete in 15 months in some 2002-04 models, as well as all models before 2002, because the OnStar electronics cannot be upgraded. Some Acura, Audi, Subaru and Volkswagen owners will also be affected.

Verizon Wireless, the network of choice for OnStar, has not said how or when it will dismantle its analog network, though it has not ruled out shutting off the service all at once. More likely, industry analysts say, the networks will be turned off in stages.

That's cold comfort for Michael Farris. His wife, Vickie, drives a 2002 GMC Yukon and uses OnStar for routing help in unfamiliar areas and to talk hands-free with her cell phone using OnStar's connection to the truck's audio system.

The truck has about 40,000 miles and runs well, so Farris wants to keep it beyond 2008. He must consider whether to sell it, find aftermarket alternatives, or go without.

"This thing we paid for is going to turn into a pumpkin," Farris, of Purcellville, Va., said. OnStar's decision to use analog-only technology "was like putting an eight-track tape player into a new vehicle."

OnStar's decision to use analog networks made sense a decade ago when the service was started because they were the most pervasive and reliable. Even as digital networks expanded in recent years -- their greater call capacities for a given amount of wireless bandwidth made them attractive to phone companies -- analog networks were often the only ones working in rural areas.

Critics say OnStar was negligent in continuing to install analog-only equipment before and after 2002 when it was clear the phaseout might be coming.

OnStar declined to make an executive available, but in a statement said, "We at OnStar sincerely regret that we will not be able to provide OnStar service to vehicles with analog-only hardware after Dec. 31, 2007."

Dealers will upgrade some 2002-04 vehicles to work on digital networks if customers buy a three-year subscription to the Safe and Sound package at $199 a year.

© Copyright 2006 The Detroit News. All rights reserved.


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