A Look At Amtrak’s Poor WiFi Service: From atrocious to very bad

It’s been a pet peeve of mine for awhile, but what sparked me to write this was not my own frustration, but rather that of fellow Boarding Area blogger’s Ben Schlappig who writes One Mile at a Time.

Yesterday afternoon he posted a vide0 of incredibly slow WiFi service on Amtrak’s Pacific Surfline service from San Diego to Los Angeles. Funny enough, I was sitting on an Amtrak train at the same time, near Richmond, VA on the complete opposite side of the country on Amtrak’s Palmetto service which runs from New York to Savannah.

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After trying to reply back to some emails on my computer, my browser kept freezing up due to the lack of internet. I kept getting the spinning circle of death on my MacBook Air, and I lost an entire blog post that wasn’t saved in time prior to the loss of WiFi connection. Unfortunately, I’ve gone through this many times before, and each time have to resort to using my iPhone as a personal hotspot, eating up my now 10GB data plan. So, what Amtrak touts as free, is now not free, since I’m paying Verizon for the luxury of being once again able to connect with the world via the cellular data signal on my phone.

So, I decided to do a little digging and find out what is up with Amtrak’s WiFi. Clearly, it’s not just a problem on one route, or one area of the country, since Ben and I, on completely two different routes, and in two different areas, are having the same issues.

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The Current Service and How It Works

First off, it’s important to note that the Amtrak WiFi service is provided via a cell signal emitted from the train. Just like my phone emits a signal to capture data, the train has routers built throughout that do the same – only at much lower speeds. After searching a variety of forums and sources, it looks like the majority of the signal is using the slower 3G service, and not the current, much faster 4G, let alone LTE service.

Currently, the service runs at 10mbps (that’s megabits per second for all you non technical folks)

Sure, the speed of the WiFi is limited in areas with poor cell service. However, I can’t imagine the cell service between Washington DC and New York is crappy enough to not warrant at least a half decent connection on a train.

What Is Amtrak Doing To Improve

Amtrak has said they are updating their WiFI product, announced earlier this year.  The plan calls for track side infrastructure that would deliver broadband speeds up to 25 Mbps to every train, up from the current 10 Mbps. For the most part, that 10mbps, or even 25mbps, is shared amongst a large group of people, if not a majority of the train. To compare, a Netflix movie in progress uses 3mbps. At that rate, only 8 people can watch it at a time. Amtrak has no plans at the moment, or in the future, to allow streaming videos, but those numbers of what it takes to watch a film onboard are for comparison, to show what kind of abuse the service goes through.

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So, there you have it. Amtrak is improving their WiFi service from atrocious to very bad. Oh, joy. For now, I’ll continue to use my iPhone’s hotspot with no regrets…

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