Complaining about crappy Wi-Fi service has been a popular pastime for Amtrak riders for years, so why is the service still so bad even after repeated attempted upgrades?
Granted, the rail company is finally seeking help in fixing its Wi-Fi woes on the Northeast Corridor (NEC), soliciting bids for a project to provide Wi-Fi speeds up to 25 megabits per second (Mbps), fast enough for streaming video and music like Netflix, YouTube and Spotify.
But the outreach to third parties comes after years of failed efforts.
The high-speed wireless Internet service AmtrakConnect, which rolled out on the NEC four years ago, disconnects frequently and leaves riders frustrated. Amtrak has repeatedly tried to improve the system and eliminate connectivity issues, to no avail. Last year, the rail company went to great pains and expense to update AmtrakConnect by including 4G, or fourth generation, wireless cellular data, offering it for free to customers on the NEC. But the added service failed to provide the appropriate coverage.
The problems are almost all related to the nature of trains -- or rather the movement of trains.
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 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.
But failed hand-offs aren't the only issue. There's also major congestion on the Northeast Corridor. The NEC is packed almost daily with commuters headed to the major cities of the East Coast -- Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Baltimore and more. As each city adds more people, the Wi-Fi stations have more to do, so the hand-offs fail more regularly.
These issues aren’t limited to Amtrak, but the combination of congestion and the limitations of Wi-Fi technology provide a uniquely frustrating situation for travelers on the NEC.
Some commuter Wi-Fi solutions, like airline Wi-Fi options, use a satellite-based system instead of cellular towers. A large antenna is mounted on the top of the plane and receives Internet broadcast from a satellite in Earth’s orbit. This allows a plane flying at 30,000 feet above the Earth to still get speeds of up to 11 Mbps. This 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.
Amtrak’s Wi-Fi may suck right now, but at least it's free. That’s one thing that commuters aren't complaining about.