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Some traditional radio stations began streaming online in the 1990s but internet radio didn’t really become popular until RealAudio appeared in 1995, followed by the availability of various radio apps. As a result, it’s estimated that almost one quarter of young adults and younger radio listeners were listening to internet radio rather than traditional broadcasts by 2012.
Whilst this initially meant using a PC or laptop, the availability of smartphones and other mobile devices combined with the proliferation of 4G networks means listening from anywhere is now a much more viable option. Listening in the car, however, is not so straightforward.
An ideal internet car radio would accept a 4G SIM card and have an app to access radio stations. A system from Parrot did exactly this but has now been withdrawn, although it is apparently installed in some Volvos as the Sensus Connect. This uses the TuneIn app among others and can also access the fuel gauge and the car’s locking system.
Some cars, such as several BMW and Mini models, do have internet streaming but, for the majority that don’t, you’ll need other solutions.
Internet Radio in the Car
To listen to internet radio in your car, you’ll need a smartphone or tablet that provides a mobile internet connection and access to radio content. You can connect the mobile device to the car radio system (the head unit) either by:
- Using a cable from the phone’s headphone out socket to the head unit’s aux-in or USB socket; in the latter case, use the phone’s charging cable while you might need to purchase a cable for the former. Using the head unit’s controls, choose ‘aux’ for input.
- If the head unit has Bluetooth, pair it and the phone using controls on each device (read the car’s documentation for ways to do this). This method means broadcasts will be interrupted for you to take incoming calls hands-free.
- When neither sockets nor Bluetooth are available, use a cassette adaptor that plugs into your phone’s speaker socket.
Once you’ve made the connection, download an internet radio app (such as TuneIn) to your phone, which will allow access to up to 50,000 radio stations worldwide. As an alternative, use apps such as Slacker to create ‘personal stations’ featuring music you like or download podcasts to listen to live shows later.
If there’s no WiFi hotspot available, which is quite likely when you’re on the move, you will be using your 3G/4G data allocation. This usage can amount to around 2.7GB a month when listening to two hours every working day and so can be costly if you don’t have an unlimited deal. For more info about radio data usage, see this article.
You can counteract data costs to some degree by listening to stations that broadcast at lower bit rates but quality will definitely suffer if you do.
A further problem is that signal strength may vary and can drop out completely in remote areas. Until coverage is improved, therefore, internet radio may not reach its full potential.