Amtrak’s upgrading its horrendous Wi-Fi. But you still won’t be able to watch Netflix.


(jmv)

In the near future, Amtrak aims to more than double its current Wi-Fi capacity in the much-traveled Northeast Corridor — an effort to address widespread complaints about getting online while onboard.

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. With the upgrade, riders might finally be able to browse the Web and check e-mail without getting constantly kicked off their connections.

Amtrak aims to roll out a pilot project as early as this winter, according to a spokesperson. But in 2014, even 25 Mbps may not be enough to deliver a satisfactory experience at a time when many American households already subscribe to even faster service at home. In short, the upgrade will make a virtually worthless feature of train travel just barely usable again.

Amtrak is effectively asking not just one family to share a 25 Mbps connection, but perhaps dozens or even hundreds of passengers on the same train. To put that in perspective, a standard-definition video on Netflix calls for 3 Mbps of bandwidth. At that rate, Amtrak's upgrades would allow up to eight people on a train to watch Netflix at a given time. Not a mind-blowing achievement.

In Amtrak's defense, streaming video ranks among the most data-intensive activities on the Internet. Its network simply can't handle all that traffic — mostly because Amtrak also has to, you know, run trains and stuff. So Amtrak has a policy that bans high-bandwidth applications like Netflix. The company told me it has no "definite" plans to change that attitude.

 

Amtrak is still digging itself out of a mountain of debt and struggling to break even. It's got a 15-year backlog of maintenance work amounting to nearly $5.8 billion in expected costs. And its budget shows losses totaling in the hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years. In this environment, it's a wonder Amtrak has Wi-Fi at all. (It's possible that Amtrak could defray the costs of its connectivity upgrades by charging riders for it, just like in-flight Wi-Fi companies do.)


(Amtrak)

In their frustration, many passengers have resorted to using their own personal mobile broadband hotspots. This tactic goes as far back as 2008. Tempting as it might be to shake our fists at those who can afford to pay for a standalone data connection, the hotspots also relieve demand on Amtrak's Wi-Fi, freeing up space for those of us who can't pay the premium. And as wireless data gets faster on phones and tablets, they'll become better alternatives, ones that aren't bound by Amtrak's content restrictions, either.

A 25 Mbps downlink is a significant upgrade, particularly in light of Amtrak's current financial picture. But despite all that: It's 2014. Streaming music and video are a basic staple of the modern Internet. The Federal Communications Commission is exploring whether to make 25 Mbps the baseline definition for broadband — the bare minimum to qualify as a high-speed connection.

By that standard, Amtrak may be arriving right on time.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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