Amtrak brings WiFi to the rails -- within limits
Laptop-toting travelers lost yet another excuse Monday for not being productive when Amtrak launched free WiFi service on Acela Express trains and in some Northeast Corridor stations.
The passenger railroad comes to the free-wireless market late; bus operators such as Bolt Bus, Megabus and Tripper Bus have offered free WiFi for years. Then again, if I'm going to put in some serious laptop time, I'd much rather do so from the roomy confines of an Acela seat.
A test of Amtrak's WiFi Wednesday on a ride to Baltimore and back showed two sides of the service: absurdly fast connections in stations and slow, limited access on the trains.
In Union Station and Baltimore Penn Station, the "AmtrakConnectStation" signal consistently delivered download speeds of around 3 million bits per second (Mbps) and uploads of about 600 thousand bits per second (Kbps). That's faster than many digital-subscriber-line connections, more than enough to catch up on TV viewing online or tune into some Web radio to drown out the Muzak playing in Baltimore.
(Farther north, Amtrak offers WiFi in Philadelphia, New York's Penn Station, Providence and the Route 128 station in Massachusetts.)
But on trains headed north and south, the "AmtrakConnect" network was less like, say, an Acela Express and more like a rush-hour Orange Line train shuffling its way under the Potomac. Although the connection almost never dropped -- unlike my experiences with WiFi on Megabus and Tripper Bus last summer -- download speeds topped out at 1 Mbps and were often closer to 200 kbps, with uploads at about half those speeds.
Amtrak spokeswoman Tracy Connell wrote in an e-mail that Amtrak aggregates mobile-broadband signals from AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile to provide service on trains. You can already use those services on a smartphone or a laptop with a mobile-broadband receiver, though the railroad's mix-and-match approach may yield a more consistent connection.
Even that pokier access should have been enough for Web-radio listening, but the Pandora and Slacker programs on an iPhone somehow failed to connect. The reason why emerged when I tried visiting the same sites on a laptop and saw an "Access Denied" message explaining that "AmtrakConnect blocks access to selected sites that are known to utilize high bandwidth or that may contain content that could be considered questionable by some of our passengers."
Amtrak's filter also blocked the Hulu and YouTube sites and even removed embedded video clips and some interactive ads from pages (some may consider that last item a feature, not a bug).
As for "questionable" content, I found that Facebook's shortcut address of "fb.me" fell under the blocked category of "Personals and Dating" -- but the regular facebook.com address went unblocked. MySpace was allowed; Match.com and eHarmony were not. (Note to my wife: Those sites meant nothing to me!)
The user agreement you must click through doesn't describe this extensive filtering, only saying that "Amtrak may restrict access to some websites or restrict individual customers from using high levels of bandwidth" and requesting that you not watch streaming video.
Connell said, "We will likely add more detail to our portal/splash page about the types of sites being blocked."
By way of comparison, the in-flight WiFi sold by such airlines as AirTran, American Airlines, Delta and Virgin America generally blocks just Internet-calling services. Passengers have reported favorably about watching YouTube clips from 35,000 feet -- though others have found that when too many passengers try to jump online, the connection bogs down to an unusable degree.
Amtrak's press release (PDF) says it's "initially" offering WiFi for free; at some point, the railroad will review this policy and consider expanding access to other routes and stations.
Should this service become a non-free option (and my employer weren't picking up the tab), I doubt I'd pay. It's not so much the relatively slow speeds of Amtrak's WiFi; it's more that I've come to appreciate the value of enforced offline time in which I can read, write, nap and generally clear my head.
What's your take on the prospect of WiFi access on trains -- or, if you've been on the Acela this week, the reality as you've observed it? (Bonus points to the first person to post a comment from a train using Amtrak's wireless.)
March 4, 2010; 11:19 AM ET
Categories: Mobile , Telecom
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