Amtrak has announced plans to test an upgrade of its notoriously inconsistent onboard Wi-Fi to faster 4G networks, but because the fix still uses Wi-Fi from a wireless company on a moving train, the best commuters can hope for is very fast Internet... very occasionally. For now, the updated Wi-Fi only runs on Acela routes from Washington, D.C. to New York to Boston. But even for those lab-rat commuters, a new kind of network doesn't solve Amtrak's biggest Wi-Fi problem: spottiness. As anyone who has upgraded from a 3G to 4G LTE cellphone knows, the network switch provides a huge boost in download and uploads speeds. But speed isn't Amtrak's issue, ultimately, so you can expect all that Twitter complaining to continue. Here's a look at what's still going to go wrong:
Cell Phone Towers Are Still Far Away
Currently, Amtrak gets its onboard Wi-Fi from Verizon and AT&T cell towers, which don't happen to sit along the train routes. Cellphone companies, of course, want to cater to dense areas of people — also known as their regular customers — and the way signals work, the further away the cell tower, the worse the reception. Although Amtrak will upgrade to faster, better cellphone technologies, changing to 4G doesn't make those cell towers get any closer to the tracks. Ericsson's CTO told The New York Times that Amtrak could make some investments that would eliminate the distance issue — installing wireless equipment along the Northeast Corridor, for instance — but that would cost a lot more money. And Amtrak has been operating at a loss for about 40 years.
Too Many Passengers Are Overwhelming a Bad Signal
With the cell towers so far away, Amtrak users — and anyone else in the area near the train — are all competing for a tiny little bit of bandwidth. Again, the new Amtrak update fails to address that, simply because it fails to change the where it gets its WiFi signal from. Raymart also suggested that the rail service could buy dedicated service from the wireless carriers, which only its passengers could use. And, again, Amtrak probably doesn't want to spend the money to do that.
You're Still in a Moving Vehicle
In an attempt to reduce the patchiness problem, Amtrak works with multiple carriers. As your train chugs along, it transfers between networks. Sometimes all those Amtrak Wi-Fi users don't notice, but other times the switch causes the network to lag. Of course, Amtrak's switching to 4G LTE won't fix that either.
4G LTE Still Isn't Available Everywhere
For all the problems above, Amtrak's new wireless network does have the potential to run faster ... when it's actually working. But that will only happen where 4G LTE exists — and that's not everywhere, as you can see from the 4G coverage maps above, with Verizon on the left and AT&T on the right. With more 4G LTE-capable devices out there, the cellphone companies have been quickly adding more coverage areas. But AT&T doesn't have too many yellow dots in between the big cities along Amtrak's Northeast corridor, now does it? Verizon's map above at left has more significantly more coverage spots — the dark red areas are where faster speeds are available — but once your trains leaves that are area, frustrating things start happening: you get bumped off, maybe the network stutters, and maybe you lose that email you were writing, leaving you with only your smartphone as a connection to the outside world. Because who needs a peaceful, Internet-free train ride these days, right?
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.