UPDATED: Amtrak on track with its own private wireless network and Wi-Fi overhaul

Amtrak is embarking on a multi-year program aimed at overhauling its current Wi-Fi service, which has earned a not-so-stellar reputation particularly in the Northeast. But it's on a path to change that – as well as roll out what Amtrak describes as pioneering technology for rail in the U.S.

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 Amtrak's newly constructed track side
 Wi-Fi towers along the Northeast Corridor.
 (Image source: Amtrak)  

Amtrak knows how popular Wi-Fi is with its customers. Up to 50 percent of customers connect to its free Wi-Fi service. However, Amtrak currently is receiving less than 10 megabits per second to the trains, and the capacity crunch is getting worse. Because Amtrak depends on commercial wireless carriers, it also experiences congestion when everybody jumps online, so in order to get around that, it's building its own private wireless network for train-to-ground communication.

As one can imagine, delivering wireless communications on trains is challenging. Unlike planes that are high in the sky, line-of-sight is more of an issue on the ground when trains are going through sometimes rugged terrain, under tree canopies and the like. And while heavy congestion in the Northeast corridor is affecting the quality of service, Amtrak's trains spend a lot of time going through parts of the country that don't have cell towers. Even though Amtrak has a solution that aggregates available bandwidth from all the major U.S. carriers, there are coverage gaps.

The trains also are moving very fast, and handoffs need to be conducted differently than those for other moving vehicles. In the corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C., for instance, as a train travels at 125 to 150 mph today and in the future, 160 mph, very fast handoffs from cell tower to cell tower are being done using whichever carrier offers the best signal strength. In other words, besides the hardware, the software needs to be highly customized for rail, according to Lenetta McCampbell, senior director of passenger experience at Amtrak. The handoffs don't happen the same way in an auto or plane environment, where "there really isn't this fast switching going on from tower to tower," she told FierceWirelessTech.

Because it has had such a huge dependence on the public cellular networks, Amtrak decided to build out its own dedicated trackside network. Last year, it constructed a 10-mile stretch in Delaware, and it's working with a radio provider to expand. With its trackside solution, Amtrak can control and optimize the backhaul rather than being reliant on a shared cell tower. The new system will increase bandwidth five to 10 times, and the goal is to deliver 100 megabits per second to trains.

Amtrak expects to have about 40 miles done by the end of September/October, and as money becomes available, it will continue to expand. The upgrades are primarily self-funded, but some states have paid for installations of Wi-Fi that Amtrak operates on their behalf.

While Amtrak will never see the kinds of performance achieved in a static environment like a home or hotel, McCampbell says it is neck-and-neck with airlines "in terms of where technology can take us."

Amtrak considered using and tested satellite technology several years ago and it simply didn't cut it. However, Amtrak is still planning to take another look at satellite, primarily for long-haul trains where there are wide open spaces; the goal is to do a pilot within a year. "There have been great advances in satellite technology," including in the airline industry where they're using Ka and Ku band solutions; the same potential exists in rail. Amtrak is looking at newer solutions but has to determine if it's viable in terms of coverage and affordability, she said.

In Europe, over the last five or six years, operators have used satellites more successfully. European trains also use blended satellite and cellular solutions. Some European train systems work more closely with cellular carriers so they can tune radios and antennas to the rail right-of-way, which helps boost the bandwidth available to a train. That's not something cell carriers in the U.S. have expressed an interest in doing.

That said, a lot of work has been done around the world to develop specialty solutions, and "I'm glad to say Amtrak has been at the forefront of efforts to create solutions that work," she said.

Amtrak's 6-year-old on-board Wi-Fi technology -- 802.11g and 802.11n -- is also getting an upgrade to 802.11ac for delivering Wi-Fi to passengers. "It's just at the end of its life and we are excited to be moving to a next-gen solution," she said. Amtrak so far is not naming any vendors.

While there are challenges associated with technology, McCampbell said one of the biggest challenges is not the technology itself but the spectrum in which it operates. For its track-side network, Amtrak is pretty much limited to the upper 5 GHz that it has to share with others. There is no dedicated spectrum for Amtrak for building a train-to-ground network.

Related articles:
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Gogo: Antenna is important component for in-flight communications
Amtrak will ditch cellular backhaul for its upgraded Wi-Fi service

Article updated April 11 to reflect Amtrak is building a private wireless network, not an LTE-A network as was previously reported.