Does rail have the bandwidth for Wi-Fi?

30 August 2012

With internet connection being a must for today’s tech-savvy rail passengers, operators face challenges when it comes to installing the necessary wireless technology. Lenetta McCampbell, senior director, onboard systems, Amtrak, talks to Ross Davies about how the US Government-run passenger rail company is looking to innovative new technology to improve performance and silence its critics.

At the end of 2011, Amtrak announced that 75% of its passengers were able to access its free onboard Wi-Fi service. The proclamation came on the back of the group extending its service on its East and West Coast routes, taking its total of internet-outfitted railcars to approximately 800.

But while the move was initially championed by passengers, the service appears to have fallen short of expectations, thanks to an ongoing flurry of complaints over connection difficulties and frustratingly slow speeds. Exacerbated by subsequent negative press overage, some have questioned whether marketing the service as Wi-Fi is plain disingenuous. In response, Amtrak has conceded that improvements are warranted.

"It's not where we would like it to be in terms of performance," Matt Hardison, chief of sales distribution and consumer service, told The New York Times in May.

To make matters more complex, a large part of the predicament is beyond the group's control. This concerns the placement of trackside cellular towers, which transmit signals to the cafe cars in which the routers are situated. As trains travel in and out of different mobile-carrier, cellular-coverage areas, handover is rendered unpredictable, which, in turn, causes connection downtime. The other snag comes from user congestion. With increasing numbers of passengers carrying laptops, iPads and smartphones, many find themselves vying for the same service, which Amtrak's current technology is unable to support, despite imposing restrictions on the streaming of music and video files and downloads in excess of 10MB.

"Being particularly focused on the customer experience, we are aware that there is now an expectation from the public to have Wi-Fi wherever they go."

"With the introduction and proliferation of these devices, the cellular towers are simply maxed out, especially on busier routes such as the Northeast Corridor," says Lenetta McCampbell, senior director, onboard systems. "And being particularly focused on the customer experience, we are aware that there is now an expectation from the public to have Wi-Fi wherever they go."

Spike in demand

Amtrak first introduced Wi-Fi on its Acela Express trains in March 2010. The service, which runs along the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, via Baltimore and New York, has long been its most profitable, accounting for a third of its ridership.

"It is our premier service, particularly for business travellers, so that's why we chose it first," says McCampbell. "For the first year it performed very well. It was really last year, when we saw a huge spike in demand in terms of users and data being consumed, that we ran into problems with bandwidth constraints."

Amtrak first began exploring the possibility of installing an onboard wireless service in 2006. This entailed much trial and error, including experimentation with cellular technology, satellite and trackside radios, as McCampbell explains: "It was at a time when nobody had really deployed Wi-Fi on trains, especially in the US. We discarded satellite because it just couldn't perform, and cellular was really in its infancy back then. You could get a one-card or two-card air modem, but the coverage along the tracks was pretty poor.

"We also evaluated building a private trackside network along the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, and actually constructed a 29-mile-long segment, which took a lot of time and money, but we had to abandon the project as it wasn't feasible. It was pretty hard to access the right of way as it's a very busy route, with over 2,000 trains travelling on it every day."

However, a fillip was presented to the group in January 2009 when President Barack Obama selected Amtrak, which is owned by the US Government, for his inauguration journey.

"For the Obama inauguration train, we really pressed hard to come up with a solution so there would be a Wi-Fi area for the press," says McCampbell. "We installed a four-card air router for the first time and it worked. By that time, the market had grown substantially and digital technology had come on. This led us to where we are today."

Upgrade to 4G

The digital technology McCampbell alludes to is supplied by Nomad Digital, a UK-based provider of IP communication solutions. Together, the two companies are working to upgrade the service from 3G to 4G, which would increase the current bandwidth dramatically.

"Over the last six months, our focus has been on preparing our existing Nomad solution and migrating it to long-term evolution (LTE)," says McCampbell. "We are still setting out a time frame - one of the things you have to be mindful of is that cellular carriers, particularly in the US, focus first on the consumer market. Their handheld devices are ready for consumers and associated air cards that go with these devices. Our technology utilises a non-standard form of an air card.

"In recent years, wireless services have emerged as a decisive factor in Americans choosing rail over air travel, where internet services are still limited."

"Also, the data card suppliers out there simply aren't concerned with the market we are in, so there is a lag. Other consumers are expecting LTE, but we are not able to come out with it just yet, as we are still developing the air cards. This is something that the technology providers, and ourselves as a service provider, have to look out for - to make sure that our technology can migrate in a timely manner."

Connecting services

In recent years, wireless services have emerged as a decisive factor in Americans choosing rail over air travel, where internet services are still limited and, if available, come at a charge. Given the high fares and time-consuming airport security procedures associated with the post-9/11 era, an opportunity has arisen for Amtrak to gain further ground on domestic airlines.

"It's a huge incentive," says McCampbell. "We have conducted a lot of market research that says, absolutely, Wi-Fi changes people's decision over whether to travel by train or some other mode. There is a positive business case for offering free wireless.

"There is no way we could charge for it because of the quality of the service. We are still dependent on the coverage along the route and we still have some holes in the coverage where there are no cellular towers."

These gaps pertain to Amtrak's Midwest routes, as well as parts of the east coast, constituting the remaining 25% of its coverage yet to be dealt with.

"We are working with our state partners in the Midwestern states, mainly Illinois, Michigan and North Carolina on the eastern seaboard, where we have a few corridor trains yet to be outfitted," says McCampbell. "Primarily, it's the long-distance trains, that don't have Wi-Fi, which carry their own unique challenges; for example, many of them go through desolate areas that have little cellular coverage."

Despite the criticism that has been levelled at Amtrak's wireless service, ridership currently sits at an all-time high of 30 million passengers. While the extension of its digital technology will indubitably demand much time and money, the reward - connected passengers - could well prove to be invaluable as the group continues to lay down the gauntlet to its skyway competitors.

Lenetta McCampbell, senior director, onboard systems, Amtrak.

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