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Lee Badman
Lee Badman
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Better Amtrak WiFi: Maybe Not So Crazy

Amtrak wants to fix its weak WiFi in its Northeast Corridor. The train company's idea isn't as improbable as it may seem.

Amtrak raised some eyebrows with its announcement this week that the cash-strapped train company is investigating the possibility of bulking up its anemic WiFi services for passengers in its Northeast Corridor. On the surface, getting each train to respectable network speeds sounds pretty far-fetched, but Amtrak has a few tricks up its sleeve that make the effort promising.

Where a lot of riders and pundits slam Amtrak’s current wireless services (about 10 Mbps per train with lots of protocol restrictions), I give the company credit for even trying. If you are not familiar with actual rail routes, you may not realize that they frequently wander well off the beaten path and away from mobile network coverage. With 457 miles to cover in its Northeast Corridor (NEC), Amtrak is doing well to provide even basic wireless service for the millions of riders a year who use the mobile network-sourced WiFi on trains that carry as many as 500 passengers each.  

In simplest terms, the rails frequently stray from cell tower coverage and so WiFi drops. But when it does work, it’s free and better than nothing. Yet it's hardly competition for the WiFi provided on buses and commercial aircraft.

Amtrak has never operated in the black, and each year receives billion-dollar government subsidies that keep it afloat. To reach the stated goal of delivering a highly reliable 25 Mbps minimum throughput for each train that travels the NEC, we’re looking at some serious infrastructure of one type or another. No options will be inexpensive, but skeptics probably don’t know about key assets already in place that will help get a 10-mile proof of concept off the ground in Maryland, at the southern end of the NEC. Those assets could eventually make a hundreds of miles long wireless network not seem like such a crazy idea.

As I read early takes on the Trackside Wi-Fi initiative, it’s pretty clear that most of those ripping on the notion haven’t dug into the publicly available project documents, as they assume any improvements would continue to come from mobile carriers. In reality, Amtrak plans on abandoning the mobile network model and leveraging fiber, power, and structures it already has in place in its rights of way to provide dedicated, high-speed backbone connectivity and mounting points for new wireless cells.

Given that typical WiFi gear doesn’t do so well with high-speed hand-offs, Amtrak would likely use carrier-grade kit along the lines of Proxim Wireless and Strix Systems to allow on-board train routers to not drop session as the train traverses through cells at up to 150 MPH. In the cars themselves, passengers would be oblivious to the trackside backhaul and would connect to one of the WiFi APs on board (typically two per car).  

From the perspective of one who designs WiFi networks and point-to-point links, this is both (mostly) realistic and pretty exciting from the technical perspective. At the same time, high costs are unavoidable when you consider that along with financial, technical, and logistical challenges, the NEC has 17 tunnels, including one almost three miles long.

Still, assuming that Amtrak can get the network built,  things get interesting on many fronts. Amtrak has a number of operational aspects that would benefit from better networking, including IP-based video security, e-commerce and ticketing, inventory and security of rolling stock, and monitoring of IP-based components.

And if the new trackside network is successful, it stands to reason that Amtrak stations would get better WiFi. And what works for the NEC would likely serve as a model for the rest of the Amtrak areas in the US and Canada, and potentially for railroads in other parts of the world.

I’ll admit to being hopeful about the initiative for Amtrak’s sake. Of course, there’s a long way to go before any success can be realized. The proof-of-concept testing in Delaware is likely to start in early 2015 and run for a year, with an NEC build out taking several years after that if early testing proves viable from the technical and business perspectives.

Lee is a Network Engineer and Wireless Technical Lead for a large private university. He also teaches classes on networking, wireless network administrtaion, and wireless security. Lee's technical background includes 10 years in the US Air Force as an Electronc Warfare ... View Full Bio
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Ariella
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Ariella,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/12/2014 | 9:26:28 AM
Amtrak Wifi
I just couldn't resist saying: this can give new meaning to the statement in thes song, "I've een working on the railroad." 
lbadman132
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lbadman132,
User Rank: Ninja
6/12/2014 | 9:38:24 AM
Re: Amtrak Wifi
Curse you, Ariella- now that will be stuck in my head all the live-long day :) I will say that this sort of work- outdoor wireless backhaul and such on poles, etc is a whole different world from indoor Wi-Fi. It can be grueling at times, but it is also very enjoyable if you like the outdoors! 
Ariella
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Ariella,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/12/2014 | 9:40:31 AM
Re: Amtrak Wifi
lbadman 132 I assure you I mean no harm. I do like being outside so long as it's not too hot, too cold, too rainy, or so sunny that I'm getting burnt.
MFelerski450
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MFelerski450,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/12/2014 | 1:33:53 PM
Infrastructure
At one time, many years ago, Amtrak was number one in the ownership of miles of fiber, primarily due to the NEC.  There was a lot of forethought there I'm sure they hadn't even considered.  With available fiber and power, and not having to worry about building that out new (let alone not having to deal with right of way issues), this actually puts them is a very good position.
lbadman132
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lbadman132,
User Rank: Ninja
6/12/2014 | 1:38:54 PM
Re: Infrastructure
I agree, mostly. There will still be topology challenges, tough areas to work in, etc and the fact that the network build needs to happen while the trains are still running (both Amtrak and the freighters that share the tracks). But the fiber in place is a huge asset. Hopefully they land a good partner, as that early pilot and good project management will be the keys between success and failure on this one.

 

-Lee
MarciaNWC
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MarciaNWC,
User Rank: Strategist
6/12/2014 | 1:43:33 PM
Cost
Lee, did Amtrak talk at all about how it might fund the improvements? Just wondering if it might go the route of airlines and begin charging riders for Wi-Fi.
lbadman132
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lbadman132,
User Rank: Ninja
6/12/2014 | 1:52:25 PM
Re: Cost
Hi Marcia. They have capitol funds set aside for the pilot project, but the longer term does get murkier. They will have to build a business case that makes the longer project viable, but you can tell that they'd very much like to keep it free if possible. At they same time, they said they'd be looking at a variety of models that could help them stay competitive on the Wi-Fi front, and it stands to reason that if Amtrak can make a technical go of it they'll be courted by all kinds of social Wi-Fi players or similiar "monitizers".

 

-Lee
Pablo Valerio
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Pablo Valerio,
User Rank: Author
6/14/2014 | 4:16:20 AM
Take a page from the Japanese
The Japanese bullet trains have WiFi since 2009, with data lines which actually run aside the entire track and use periodic wireless transmitters to connect to passengers.

 Joint efforts of NTT, KDDI and SoftBank (the three major operators) have been running the service since 2009.

Cellular users with 3G/4G modems can also benefit from the infrastructure as the trains are equipped with repeaters and hotspots.
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Author
6/14/2014 | 6:15:30 AM
WiFi SchmiFi
Purely anecdotal, but based on my experience in speaking with people who have relied on Amtrak, their money would be better invested in more comfortable seats.  (Indeed, this is the primary reason one of my loved ones prefers to avoid taking Amtrak -- and it has thereby cost Amtrak business.)
GreggBoston
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GreggBoston,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/14/2014 | 4:26:17 PM
Re: WiFi SchmiFi
I'll try to be polite, but in what universe do your contacts live? I frequently travel the Northeast Corridor and the Acela seats are 2 orders of magnitude better than comparable airline seats. In this corridor, the focus of this article, WIFI is the critical success factor. The only other place where Amtrak could improve service, is to bypass the crappy rail lines through Connecticut and improve travel times. However, this is a major project that would require tremendous funding.

 
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