Ever since Amtrak rolled out internet connectivity on their trains in the northeast corridor the response has been a mixed bag. Passengers are happy it exists in theory but the actual performance has been less than spectacular, particularly if you believe some of the many Twitter rants out there on the topic. Amtrak is trying to improve the situation but they’re faced with many challenges, not the least of which is providing free connectivity to hundreds of people while traveling up and down the coast. The latest step in the upgrade process is to upgrade the systems on the trains to support 4G service, up from the 3G network currently supported. There’s just one small problem with that plan: the route doesn’t have much 4G coverage.
Most of Amtrak’s problems stem from the fact that they are running on tracks where they stray rather far from civilization, and the high population density areas are where the cell towers are. Combine those two factors and the cell coverage isn’t all that great. So it doesn’t matter how fast the radio is on the device; if there isn’t coverage between the train and the base station things aren’t going to work so well. The other potential problem comes from having so many users on the system. Free services tend to attract more users and heavily loaded systems tend to struggle unless they are built to support that level of use. It does not seem that the Amtrak wifi systems were built that way. And upgrading to a 4G connection won’t solve that part of the problem.
The service is great when it works. But promising connectivity and not actually providing that to customers can actually hurt the business more than the offer of the service can help. Airlines are facing similar issues as they deal with upgrading the bandwidth on their planes. The gogo service can now support 4G with an upgraded radio on the planes (ATG4). Airlines are getting these new systems installed but it is not yet clear that the additional bandwidth will solve the performance issues which crop up from time to time. It will be interesting to see if either Amtrak or the airlines can solve this problem. The current connectivity provided by both is still challenging to users in many instances.