Wi-Fi access for Amtrak trains

Amtrak seeks faster Wi-Fi for Northeast trains

Amtrak is exploring options to upgrade its on-board Wi-Fi service in the Northeast Corridor (NEC), with a particular interest in constructing a dedicated, wireless trackside network to provide a high-capacity, broadband-speed Internet connection between Washington and Boston.

A wireless trackside network would give passengers a true broadband experience, close existing coverage gaps along the NEC, and allow the railroad service to drop current restrictions on streaming media and large file downloads, Amtrak said in its announcement.

“We know that our customers want a consistently reliable and fast on-board Wi-Fi experience – something we cannot guarantee today on our busiest trains when hundreds of customers want to go online at the same time – and we want to make that possible,” said Amtrak’s  chief marketing and sales officer, Matt Hardison.

AmtrakConnect, the current Wi-Fi service, was launched in March 2010 aboard Acela Express trains and on state-supported services in California, Washington, Oregon and Illinois. Because of the expected growth of smart devices and increasing network demands, Amtrak wants to provide additional capacity and a more consistent Internet experience to its riders in the Northeast.

Currently, each Amtrak train has specific car, usually the café car, that supports a communication control unit. The CCU uses multiple concurrent 3G and 4G cellular links supplied by the major wireless carriers. The connection is distributed to Wi-Fi access points on the train to provide passengers with connectivity.

Because the competition among passengers for Wi-Fi connection varies and because commercial cell providers’ towers are not uniformly located along the NEC, coverage is inconsistent, requiring Amtrak to “shape traffic,” or restrict Internet use on the trains.

Amtrak is now soliciting bids for a proof-of-concept project for a secure trackside wireless broadband network -- a wayside communications system specifically designed for trains.

The concept calls for base stations to be installed in, or close to, wayside antennas oriented to provide continuous coverage along the rail tracks. Base stations are typically connected to a central backhaul network comprised of fiber along the right-of-way or using intermediate microwave links to the nearest fiber access point.

The goal is to increase available bandwidth per train from 10 Mbps today to a minimum of 25 Mbps (and scalable to even faster speeds as technology advances) to meet growing customer data usage demands. Results of the test project will be used to determine whether it is technically and financially feasible to construct such a network along the entire 457-mile NEC.

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