Image: Massachusetts Office of Tourism/Flickr
If you've spent any amount of time using wifi on a train, you've probably been frustrated with a shoddy connection that cuts out intermittently, throttles your speed, and sometimes doesn't work at all. To keep customers from jumping ship, Amtrak has an atypical plan to improve its internet connection—it's creating a dedicated wifi network along the 500-mile Northeast Corridor, from Washington, DC to Boston.
In other words, Amtrak is becoming its own ISP.
On its face, the plan is somewhat insane—the company will, in effect, be building out its own, dedicated, fiber-backed internet infrastructure. But it's made easier by the fact that Amtrak has snatched up fiber around the country, and has fiber networks that connect many of its important offices and stations around the corridor (and in the rest of the country).
"We have lots of fiber already—we're going to be leveraging all the existing assets we have," Lenetta McCampbell, senior director of passenger services at Amtrak told me. "I wouldn't say we're definitely going to be laying more fiber, but where we have it available, we want to make use of it."
That's kind of a novel concept, considering that much of the country is already wired with fiber—but very little of it is actually used to provide people with internet.
The company says that, if it works, you'll be able to get internet speeds of at least 25 Mbps, which is currently faster than the average American broadband connection, with plans to scale that even higher as the technology improves. Ideally, your internet connection will be as fast and reliable on the train as it is in your home or office.
The problem is, the company has to figure out how to connect a series of hundreds of fiber-wired, 40-foot-tall wifi base stations to each other, and seamlessly connect them to a high-speed train, effectively switching from tower to tower as it moves.
Because the signal isn't actually converted to wifi until it gets to the train, you won't be able to just walk up to the railroad tracks with your laptop and connect. You have to buy a ticket.
When it's done, it'll be, by far, the most extensive train wifi network in the world.
It's not easy, and no one is remotely sure how much it's going to cost. The company recently put out a request for proposals to have a company come in and help it build the thing. The plan, right now, is to keep onboard wifi free for all riders, but McCampbell, says it's too early to say for sure.
"We like that we can offer wifi for free to passengers today," she told me. "It's in very high demand, and if we do have a true, high-speed broadband network, there might be a different business model we can look at. We're not ready to say how this will be implemented."
Regardless, people want faster connections, and the company says it's determined to offer them.
"We know we've needed this for a while, known we haven't had enough bandwidth," McCampbell said. "We've had to limit how our passengers use the network."
Typically, wifi-enabled buses and trains use cellular networks to provide riders with the internet. Each train or bus has its own 3G or 4G receivers and, generally, contracts with most of the major cell phone providers. The signal comes from a satellite and is converted to a wifi signal by a device on the train. That's why speed is often limited and intermittent. Here's how Amtrak explains it:
Each train consist has a communications control unit (CCU) located within a single car in the consist, typically in the cafe car. This car is referred to as a 'brain' car for that consist. The CCU uses multiple concurrent 3G and 4G cellular links supplied by all four major US carriers (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile) to provide as much Internet capacity as possible to the train … the aggregated traffic is sent from the train via antennas mounted on the rooftop of the brain car over the commercial cellular networks to servers at the East Coast datacenter where packets are re-assembled, white/black listing is checked, and the packets are sent on to the internet. On return, large-file downloads are stopped and all streaming of video or music is removed.
It looks like this:
Sound inefficient and slow? It is. Each year, more than 11 million people take trains on the Northeast Corridor—most with a laptop or a cell phone or some other wifi device. And, as 4G networks get bogged down with more and more people finally getting smartphones 3G and 4G internet speeds on trains were only going to get worse unless an entirely new system was designed and rolled out.
Finally, the current system relies on there being good cellular service the entire trip. There isn't. While the internet might work just fine as you're nearing a major city, when you're in the middle of nowhere the internet is going to slow down or cut out, in my experience, at least.
Though what Amtrak is doing is ambitious, it's not completely new. San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit, through a company called Wi-Fi Rail, has had an essentially identical system to what Amtrak is doing set up for several years. According to the company, the system is a "combination of 802.11g access points, single-mode fiber, solar power systems, in-train equipment, and proprietary software systems to control authentication and access."
Underground, wifi signal is delivered via radio, amplifiers, and filters, and above ground, radio systems, like the ones Amtrak is trying to use, provide "line-of-sight" coverage. The company says BART's trains get internet at about 15 Mbps.
Amtrak says its system will be similar, but its Acela trains can go 150 miles per hour, and the track is roughly 500 miles long—those two factors have made a dedicated network hard to implement in the past.
"The speed of our trains makes it particularly challenging—this has really only been deployed in other, Metro-type systems where speeds are lower," Andy Morin, the rail side wifi's project director, told me. "We're hoping we can go well above [having a base station] every 100 feet. The goal is to test how strong the signal is, see how much throughput we can get and then build this out."
To do that, this fall, the company is going to have a proof-of-concept demonstration on a 10-mile section of track just south of Wilmington, Delaware—one of the busiest lengths of rail in the US.
The company, in its request for proposals, admitted that if it doesn't do this, people are going to stop riding its trains.
"Airlines and buses are aggressively expanding the availability and quality of their passenger wifi services, publicly promising future broadband speeds that exceed Amtrak's current capabilities," the RFP states. "Amtrak's competitors are acknowledging that wifi has become an expected passenger amenity."