Amtrak says it has expanded the coverage of its cellular-based wifi service on several more long-distance trains, which means that 90%, or 28 million, of its customers now ride trains with wifi. (It's posted a full list of wifi-enabled routes, here.)
But the slow speed and frequent interruptions of that wifi service have been a sore point with many passengers. Last November, the railroad admitted to the Wall Street Journal that its average bandwidth had declined 40% last year, due to increased demand on its system by device-toting passengers.
Amtrak says its wifi system is capable of delivering 10 megabits-per-second of bandwidth (mbps) for each train, which is about the same as what early generation wifi services for airlines offer.
But 10 mbps isn't anywhere near as fast as what typical home and office wifi networks provide, as the recent hard negotiations between American Airlines and its provider of in-flight wi-fi service, Gogo, highlighted.
Airlines like American are increasingly turning to satellite-based systems that can deliver more bandwidth. (Usage of these satellite systems have received US regulatory approval in recent months.)
Amtrak says it has tested satellite-based service, and that it will do another pilot with its long-distance trains within about a year's time. But so far it has decided that its best bet is on trackside, cellular-based service, especially for congested train routes in the Northeast.
It says it has begun an overhaul that involves replacing the wifi equipment first installed in 2010 with a more advanced platform that can "incorporate higher-speed backhaul technologies, such as trackside wifi and satellite."
The trackside wifi system pulls together bandwidth from all of the major cellular carriers offering service. The software is coded to cope with rapid switches between cellular towers, a relatively rare challenge for software of this type.
Last year, Amtrak built a 10-mile stretch of trackside wifi, which is a high-speed fiber network that can supplement the cellular signal, on its Northeast Corridor route south of Wilmington, Delaware. The towers, built next to the tracks, let the railroad company boost bandwidth significantly. The aspiration is to deliver 100 mbps to trains.
By autumn, the company plans to add another 30 miles of private trackside wifi network. Depending on funding, which requires oversight by Congress, the network could expand to cover track 110 additional miles between Washington, D.C., and Boston, by 2017.