Amtrak, America's much-maligned railroad service, have given rail passengers a gift: upgraded WiFi on its very expensive Acela trains and will upgrade the rest of its trains by summer. But even the revamped Internet access won't be good enough to stream Netflix — and because we're brats, we'll still find this unacceptable.
The reason you still won't be able to stream Netflix, Hulu or Pandora this summer (or any time soon) is that streaming audio and video puts and a massive burden on the network and, with too many people watching movies at the same time, can bring down the entire wireless service. "Amtrak said, it would still restrict data-heavy activities that could slow the service down, like streaming video sites like Netflix and music sites like Pandora. The railroad also restricts file downloads larger than 10MB," reported The New York Times's Ron Nixon.
This may be sensible policy for trying to preserve connectivity on a moving object, but Amtrak passengers are still regularly annoyed that they can't do the Internet stuff they normally do while sitting on a train. At this very minute there are people riding on Amtrak trains complaining on Twitter (probably through Amtrak's WiFi) about being deprived of Netflix:
As the upgrade would suggest, Amtrak's WiFi has never been blazingly fast and people have long complained about its spotty, easily overloaded service. So, these travelers are essentially complaining a reality that has never been. But mostly, they're just baselessly complaining.
Amtrak's free WiFi is actually a gift we take for granted. It's not quite the 16th birthday gift from the parents, and more like Secret Santa from that person who really likes you at work, but it's still a gift. "On the one hand, we’re lucky to have such pervasive Internet access ... On the other, it’s frustrating anytime something that should work doesn’t," an Amtrak passenger told Nixon, though it's unclear if she was using the upgraded WiFi.
But it's also a free gift, and Amtrak is unlike the airlines and cruises who charge you to use the Internet. And while there are magic whispers of people who can hack Netflix at 30,000 feet—most of the travelers I've seen on planes almost download the movie before the trip (though how plane travelers watch their movies, sometimes without headphones, has no uniformity). If no other method of modern travel allows you to stream Netflix seamlessly, why take it out on Amtrak?
Oh, right. It's because of the perception of Amtrak being a method of travel that allows you to be productive. Unlike airplanes, people who aren't in the sweet piece of heaven known as the Quiet Car have access to their cellphones and can do "business" while in transit, which Nixon notes and has been noting in the past (he's The Times's Amtrak WiFi beat reporter). But what kind of serious business requires you to stream Season 5 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer? If that is a real, well-paying job, please sign me up. And if you're in a job that's so important that it demands that you download extremely large files while in transit, you need to talk to your supervisors about plane travel.
Amtrak's WiFi upgrade, which promises reliability and faster speed should give most business people what they need—more e-mail access and Internet browsing. Though one Wire staffer believes that if you're going to do work on a train, it should be marginal. And fortunately there are some people cheering for the railroad service that could along with actual testimonials of speed being faster. Though, with this upgrade, people will be even more connected to Twitter and other forms of social media, to complain about the upgrades they believe they need.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.