Wireless Infrastructure

07:00 AM
Lee Badman
Lee Badman
Commentary
Connect Directly
Twitter
LinkedIn
RSS
E-Mail
50%
50%

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
Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
Page 1 / 3   >   >>
Joe Stanganelli
50%
50%
Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Author
6/18/2014 | 7:34:05 PM
Re: WiFi SchmiFi
For my own part, the only time I've seen device charging on a plane was when I flew Lufthansa internationally.

Good to know about Delta!
PaulS681
50%
50%
PaulS681,
User Rank: Ninja
6/18/2014 | 7:19:39 PM
Re: WiFi SchmiFi
Good point about charging your device Joe. Delta does have some planes where you can charge your device on the plane. It's not widespread but it is there. However, in general terms I agree with you.
Joe Stanganelli
50%
50%
Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Author
6/18/2014 | 7:39:00 AM
Re: WiFi SchmiFi
As unpleasant as air travel can be at times, I find the vibration/bumpiness of the train to be sometimes unbearable.

Incidentally, one thing that a number of carriers -- train or plane -- don't seem to realize: What good is WiFi if you have nowhere to charge your device?!?!?!?
Pablo Valerio
50%
50%
Pablo Valerio,
User Rank: Author
6/18/2014 | 5:43:37 AM
Re: WiFi SchmiFi
Joe, I find difficult to justify traveling by train if the trip takes more than four hours. Of course it is easier to work on a train than in an airplane, especially if you're flying couch (then it is impossible)

Now most airlines offer some kind of connectivity, but I found the best thing to do when flying is to read a book or try to sleep.
Joe Stanganelli
50%
50%
Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Author
6/16/2014 | 8:23:24 PM
Re: WiFi SchmiFi
Boston<->NYC may be a special case where train pricing is competitive with flight pricing, but certainly air travel is cheaper farther than that from Boston (Baltimore, DC, and farther).

Of course, the real deals are to be had on buses...but who wants to spend that long on a bus if you can help it?
Joe Stanganelli
50%
50%
Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Author
6/16/2014 | 8:21:43 PM
Re: Plane or train? is Wifi really a factor?
WiFi is just the easiest, most palatable problem to solve in the transportation industry.  No one in the industry wants to think about -- much less acknowledge -- the real pain points for their customers.
MarciaNWC
50%
50%
MarciaNWC,
User Rank: Strategist
6/16/2014 | 7:30:01 PM
Re: Plane or train? is Wifi really a factor?
I wish we had the choice of train out here on the West Coast. Amtrak routes here are more for scenic leisurely trips than practical logistics.
PaulS681
50%
50%
PaulS681,
User Rank: Ninja
6/15/2014 | 9:21:40 AM
Re: WiFi SchmiFi
@Joe... How is air travel cheaper?? I'm sure it depends where you go but a train from Boston to NY is much less than a flight. You could argue it takes about the same time when you figure in how much time you have to put into just getting to the airport and going through security.
PaulS681
50%
50%
PaulS681,
User Rank: Ninja
6/15/2014 | 9:14:51 AM
Plane or train? is Wifi really a factor?
Is the decision to take a train or plane really based on which one has better wifi?

I think Amtrak should be commended on trying to improve it but they face some pretty understandable barriers. They are in competition with air travel obviously but I don't think people choose air travel because their wifi is better.
Joe Stanganelli
50%
50%
Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Author
6/15/2014 | 5:45:08 AM
Re: WiFi SchmiFi
Part of the issue, too, is that air travel is so much cheaper that (well, perhaps until recently, anyway, given all the obnoxious security measures you have to deal with these days) it is preferable to many travelers than train travel.

As for me...I prefer to drive, even if my car doesn't have WiFi.
Page 1 / 3   >   >>
Slideshows
Cartoon
Audio Interviews
Archived Audio Interviews
Jeremy Schulman, founder of Schprockits, a network automation startup operating in stealth mode, joins us to explore whether networking professionals all need to learn programming in order to remain employed.
White Papers
Register for Network Computing Newsletters
Current Issue
Video
Twitter Feed