Amtrak Proposes Faster WiFi Speeds Along Northeast Corridor

Amtrak has announced plans to upgrade their existing WiFi service with a call for bids that is ambitious in some ways, but moderate in others. The ambitious part is the nature of the network that Amtrak is hoping to build.

As PCmag.com reports, Amtrak’s call for proposals seeks to build a “wireless trackside network along the Northeast Corridor,” and it is currently “soliciting bids for a proof-of-concept project which will help determine if such a trackside network is ‘technically and financially feasible.'”

The moderate part of the announcement is the speed increase from 10Mbps to 25Mbps. Brian Fung at The Washington Post explains why that increase in WiFi speeds, while it is an improvement, is nothing for Amtrak to boast about. He points out, “many American households already subscribe to even faster service at home,” and goes on to say:

“Amtrak is effectively asking not just one family to share a 25 Mbps connection, but perhaps dozens or even hundreds of passengers on the same train. To put that in perspective, a standard-definition video on Netflix calls for 3 Mbps of bandwidth. At that rate, Amtrak’s upgrades would allow up to eight people on a train to watch Netflix at a given time. Not a mind-blowing achievement.”

The Atlantic published a more optimistic analysis of Amtrak’s proposed WiFi upgrade. In it, Robinson Meyer writes:

“[t]his new network should remove the final coverage gaps along the Boston-to-Washington, D.C. route.” The same piece also reminds us, though, that “[t]he announcement, while promising, essentially only constitutes a request for business proposals. Amtrak would like companies to pitch it different wifi [sic] options.”

Slate, meanwhile, seems to take the most pessimistic approach with the headline “Amtrak Might Speed Up Its Slow Internet,” but in actuality, we learn that the reason for the “might” is because the project “will test broadband network options along a section of its Northeast Corridor in Delaware south of Wilmington.”

Alison Griswold quotes Lenetta McCampbell, senior director of onboard systems, as saying:

“Because this hasn’t been done in a network like ours [Amtrak’s], which has very high train traffic and high speed trains, we first want to prove the technology can work.”

That is a reasonable variable to test. The International Business Times explains why:

“The railroad system crisscrosses areas that are more or less distant from major urban areas. So to provide Internet to passengers, Amtrak relies on cellular towers for service. These towers have Wi-Fi [sic] broadcasting stations that blast signals at the train, allowing commuters to pick up signals and access the Internet. But each station has a limited range, and when the train moves out of that range, a different station has to pick up where the last one left off. That process is called a hand-off, and it often fails.”

“Hand-offs are pretty standard in the mobile world. Cellphones have been great at this service for many years. That’s not to say they always work, though: Most people are familiar with failed cellular hand-offs, more commonly known as dropped calls.”

The article has more details, including a great rundown of the way that airlines use satellite connections to overcome similar issues with their in-flight WiFi. (See Inquisitr‘s discussion of the GoGo in-flight WiFi service here.)

Cameron Fuller does warn us in that article, though:

“[t]his solution may not be the best for Amtrak, as satellite communication is largely dependent on weather and geo-location, or where the train is on the earth.”

If this project overcomes those challenges and brings Amtrak’s WiFi service up to speed, it is clear that it will do so in the long term. For now, we only know that they are taking the issue seriously.

[Image via Wikipedia]