Amtrak aims to boost Wi-Fi speeds from Washington to Boston with a track-side network

As my Boston-based colleague Barb Darrow can attest, the Acela train commute to NYC can be frustrating if you’re trying to get work done. Amtrak offers free Wi-Fi on its Northeast Corridor (NEC) trains from Washington to Boston, but if it’s a crowded train you’re usually better off bringing your own mobile hotspot – or just taking a nap.

Amtrak wants to change that, though. It hopes to do away with the 3G and 4G cellular network connections it buys from Verizon(s vz), AT&T(s t), Sprint(s s) and T-Mobile(s tmus) (which it then redistributes to passengers via Wi-Fi) and replace them with its own dedicated track-side network, boosting the total capacity it can deliver to a train from 10 Mbps today to more than 25 Mbps.

“We know that our customers want a consistently reliable and fast on-board Wi-Fi experience – something we cannot guarantee today on our busiest trains when hundreds of customers want to go online at the same time – and we want to make that possible,” Matt Hardison, Amtrak chief marketing and sales officer, said in a statement.

Amtrak's Northeast Corridor (source: Amtrak)

Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (source: Amtrak)

The railway is now asking for bids for a proof-of-concept of network it would test on a 10-mile segment of track in Delaware. The winning viable concept would then be built along the entire NEC. What kind of network could we see come out of it? Likely it would be a cellular network similar to what Amtrak aims to replace. The difference would be a cellular system specifically designed to connect trains.

Today, Amtrak is connecting to the same towers you and I are communicating with in New York, Philadelphia or Washington, D.C. When those towers get congested, so does Amtrak’s Wi-Fi, and when a train leaves a populated area and chugs into the countryside between stations, those cellular towers are often few and far between.

But if Amtrak builds its own network, it can position its transmitters right beside the tracks, beaming their broadband signals for miles in either direction to connect trains as they come and go. Amtrak could even point those radios through tunnels, and it could use fiber buried in its rights-of-way to backhaul its network on the NEC’s entire 457 miles.

Considering the mobile carriers own cellular spectrum, they could be likely partners to build this network, but there might also be an opportunity to try new types of unlicensed-airwave access technologies like white spaces broadband.

Amtrak hopes that with a better network it can lift restrictions on video streaming or top speeds available to individual passengers. It might sound as if 25 Mbps is enough to accomplish that, but keep in mind that’s shared bandwidth. If you’ve got 100 people trying to stream Netflix on the same train, you’re still going to get a bottleneck. But Amtrak apparently is approaching 25 Mbps as an intermediate goal. According to industry trade publication RailwayAge, Amtrak hopes to boost total Wi-Fi capacity to 100 Mbps per train by 2019.