Amtrak still getting slammed for crappy Wi-Fi service in Northeast

It looks as though for all intents and purposes, Amtrak still hasn't managed to fix the Wi-Fi problems that have plagued the railroad service provider in the Northeast.

Dan Berman of the National Journal tested it and concluded it's worse than previously thought. In some stretches between Washington, D.C., and New York, "you basically don't have the Internet at all."

Amtrak is up-front about some of its limitations. "Our mobile Wi-Fi network relies on bandwidth provided by cellular carriers who have towers along our routes. The bandwidth available from these towers is limited and our speed may not match what you are used to receiving from stationary Wi-Fi networks such as your home or office," Amtrak's terms and conditions state.

AmtrackConnect Wi-Fi currently blocks access to streaming media like YouTube and Netflix (NASDAQ: NFLX) and limits file downloads to 10 MB. "Engaging in web activities that use large amounts of bandwidth will negatively affect the online experience of other passengers. When using our network, please keep this in mind and be respectful of your fellow passengers."

But as Berman found, commuters who want to get some work done while on the train are up against a challenging situation. "Continuous use is just impossible for much of the trip--the connection is too choppy," he writes. "Sending email wasn't the most horrible experience, no more annoying than losing your cell signal on the D.C. metro, but nothing to brag about."

Last year, Amtrak began soliciting bids for a dedicated trackside wireless broadband network that would backhaul Wi-Fi service for Amtrak's Acela Fleet, the high-speed rail service along the Northeast Corridor (NEC) between Washington, D.C., and Boston.

An Amtrak spokesperson said in an email to National Journal that its free Wi-Fi service is extremely popular, with the demand often consuming available bandwidth, particularly on busy trains. "In addition, current coverage from cellular towers and signal strength does not provide consistent coverage along each route," the spokesperson said.

"Consequently, we are testing the technical and financial feasibility of constructing our own trackside high-speed broadband network on the Northeast Corridor [NEC]. Should initial testing this spring prove promising, Amtrak would then build a test segment along a nine-mile stretch south of Wilmington, Delaware, later this year. After that section is built and tested, Amtrak will consider deploying along additional sections of the NEC," the statement concluded.

Experts says getting wireless connectivity on trains is much harder than on airplanes due to the terrain that changes along the way--obstacles like trees and buildings that interfere with signals and are difficult to plan for.

For more:
- see this DSL Reports article
- see this National Journal review

Related articles:
Amtrak will ditch cellular backhaul for its upgraded Wi-Fi service
Amtrak improving Wi-Fi experience with LTE upgrade
Amtrak issues RFQ for WiFi on trains