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Jun 9 2014   6:35PM GMT

Wi-Fi on Rails: Amtrak issues proof-of-concept RFP for trackside network

Kate Gerwig Kate Gerwig Profile: Kate Gerwig

Broadband wireless networks

Anyone who rides Amtrak up and down the busy Northeast Corridor from Washington, D.C., to Boston knows how great it is to get work done on the train, complete with Amtrak Wi-Fi connections for email, Internet access and chatting. Great, that is, until the heartbreak of wireless dead zones in Delaware, Connecticut or anywhere else along the route grind your work flow to a halt.

Amtrak wants to change all of that for those Type A Northeast Coasters and has issued a Request for Proposal for a wireless trackside network to provide broadband Internet connections between Washington and Boston. The plan for trackside Wi-Fi is lacking in specifics, but Amtrak is accepting proof-of-concept proposals as part of its RFP until July 28. Anyone needing more information can find it here.

Amtrak’s goal is to increase available bandwidth per train from 10 Mbps to a minimum of 25 Mbps. The results of the test project will be used to decide if it is both technically and financially feasible to construct a network like this along the 457-mile corridor. Amtrak said the network would close existing coverage gaps along the Northeast Corridor (NEC for those in the know), which would enable Amtrak to drop restrictions on streaming media and large file downloads.

Anyone who saw the season finale of Silicon Valley on HBO knows that this is where the engineers get out the white board and drink too much Red Bull.

“It’s not clear just how it will ultimately work at the technical level, but my guess is that they’ll have Wi-Fi hotspots per car and will feed the train with an RF or wireline connection along its route,” said CIMI Corp. president Tom Nolle. “This connection probably won’t be Wi-Fi, and the stuff they use will handle any roaming so the user won’t see a Wi-Fi change.”

Amtrak defines a trackside wireless broadband network as a “wayside communications system specifically designed and built for use by both conventional and high-speed trains.” To make it work, Amtrak’s background information says base stations located in the right-of-way would be installed in or close to the wayside with antennas oriented to provide continuous coverage along the rail tracks.

The issue with in-train Wi-Fi is that you have to feed it with something. If it is in the train, you need wireless connectivity to feed the hot spots (kind of like the way in flight Wi-Fi works), according to Mike Jude, program manager of Consumer Communications Services at Frost & Sullivan.

“Or you need to provide Wi-Fi access externally, the way Amtrak seems to want to do it.  This will be hard. Wi-Fi hot spots don’t currently hand off traffic like cell sites do, so you’re faced with the limitations of Wi-Fi generally — number of users, bandwidth constraints, etc.,” Jude said. “Think of trying to support literally thousands of mobile users along a continuous track a couple of hundred miles long.  (e.g., one continuous hot spot along the track) Will it be possible? Well maybe, but I am not sure how well it is going to work.”

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