AT&T, the US telecoms operator, will bring superfast mobile broadband to General Motor’s vehicles from next year, in a partnership that highlights the growing ubiquity of the mobile internet.

The tie-up, announced on Monday at the Mobile World Congress in Barcleona, Spain, marks the first large-scale deployment of LTE (long-term evolution) technology in vehicles and a significant step towards building the next generation of “connected cars”.

“We see the car as another wireless device, like a [big] smartphone,” Glen Laurie, president of AT&T’s emerging devices dvision, said. “Our goal is to take the car to the next level.”

These vehicles, which will go on sale from mid-2014, will provide a wide range of wireless services including navigation, internet access, entertainment services including rear-seat video and remote diagnostic capabilities.

For AT&T, which will replace Verizon Wireless as the network service provider for GM’s 16-year-old OnStar subscription safety and security call service, the deal represents a significant contract win. AT&T already has wireless deals with carmakers including Ford Motor and Nissan Motor, but the GM agreement is its biggest deal so far.

“In addition to allowing consumers to bring in and connect to personal mobile devices, the vehicle will also act as its own mobile device, enabling embedded vehicle capabilities,” said Mary Chan, president, global connected consumer, GM.

“Turning this vision into a reality starts with enabling fast, reliable and responsive connectivity within the vehicle. Through this built-in 4G LTE connection we have the opportunity to reinvent the mobile experience inside a vehicle.”

Ms Chan said the service could also be used to diagnose engine or other problems remotely, send alerts to drivers and schedule maintenance appointments.

Mr Laurie said AT&T believed telematics would ultimately grow to be a $1bn-a-year business.

Industry analysts say vehicles will be one of the next big growth areas for mobile operators which, at least in the US, have seen subscriber growth slow markedly in recent years. AT&T itself predicts that as many as 20m new cars sold in the US between 2014 and 2018 will be equipped with wireless internet access.

Traditionally most machine-to-machine (M2M) wireless systems have used older and slower mobile technologies, but LTE provides new opportunities because it is both very cost effective and provides the capacity needed to carry bandwidth-hungry applications, such as mobile video.

Under the terms of the agreement, GM and AT&T will begin working together immediately on the infrastructure including the LTE radio modules for vehicles and GM will begin by installing the technology in its Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac vehicles, beginning in 2014 in the US and Canada.

GM said it would announce more carrier and supplier relationships in the coming months to expand 4G LTE capabilities in markets around the globe.

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