A reader writes:
If it’s really so hard to provide good wifi, how is it that airplanes can do it? Not too many cell towers at 30,000 feet and 500mph, last I could see.
How to fix Amtrak? Well, if they decided to charge $12 per day like GoGo does for flights, they could probably boot enough people off the system to get speeds up for the ones who stay on. And maybe this would raise enough revenue to build dedicated, track-side wifi facilities for areas with poor service. But even GoGo isn’t infallable (it usually quits several times during a flight and needs to be rebooted) and it’s certainly pricey. I guess I really should just jailbreak my iPhone and use it as a hotspot.
Before the Northeast Corridor got wifi, Amtrak’s Downeaster from Boston to Portland, Maine was wired for service in 2007. The first iteration was, by all accounts, pretty horrible. It used only one provider, so when that signal wasn’t available, it was toast. The revamped wifi is better, but it still runs in to a major problem: outside of major population centers, good service is aimed at Interstate Highways.
If you ride the bus from Boston to Portland (which also has wifi – the train and bus are in a sort of symbiotic competition, unlike further south on the Northeast Corridor where the bus is a budget product and the train is a luxury, although if you really want a bus experience, you can take the Greyhound, which Concord Coach and Amtrak have almost completely driven off the route) connection speeds top out slower, but service is more constant. The train traverses some more rural areas in New Hampshire and Maine, at which point the service grinds to a halt. I have found that when the Dish stops loading (oh, I guess I read other things on the train, too, from time to time) I can look at my phone and it invariably shows little or no service. At which point I look out the window or – horrors! – read a book. (Or go down to the cafe and get a beer.)
The MBTA in Boston has wifi on commuter trains as well, which works better because the trains traverse more settled areas at generally lower speeds and fewer people use the service (especially outside peak commute times). Still, on the outer reaches of some of the lines where the train passes through horse farms between stations, service can be shoddy. But it’s free, so we can’t complain too much.