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Wi-Fi on US bus and rail systems can be spotty or non-existent


ON HER daily commute from Baltimore to Philadelphia via Amtrak, Uschi Symmons depends on a stable Internet connection to begin the workday during the 7 am ride. That means responding to e-mails, analysing data and preparing for her lab work as an experimental scientist at the University of Pennsylvania.

The problem is that the onboard Wi-Fi is not always reliable. "If you cannot open a Google doc, it's bad," said Ms Symmons, a monthly-pass rider who recently upgraded her data plan and added a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot to manage the commute. "When I did it, I was, like, 'I can't believe I'm paying over a thousand bucks and I have to upgrade my data plan'."

It is a maddening experience for not only the hordes of travellers along the North-east Corridor - who are otherwise satisfied with Amtrak and welcome the included Wi-Fi service - but the countless more travelling across the country on intercity bus systems such as Megabus, Bolt Bus and Greyhound.

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The systems tout amenities such as Wi-Fi and power outlets - which often factor into a customer's decision to use them - but some passengers and advocates complained that those promised perks are spotty at best.

"That's kind of the annoying part . . . They're marketing this thing, and then it never works or doesn't exist at all," said Jonathan Weidman, of Atlanta, a frequent Megabus traveller who works in transportation. "One of the draws we market to (people) is they can get other things done instead of driving a car. When that's not feasible, it just makes my industry a little more challenging."

It is an inexact science. Amtrak, Megabus, Bolt Bus and Greyhound declined to say whether they measure their Wi-Fi reliability, though developers and publications have tested the networks - with disappointing results. Megabus touted statistics gathered through passenger surveys, however, concluding that "88 per cent of passengers shared that they were satisfied with the Wi-Fi capabilities during their Megabus trip", said Sean Hughes, a spokesman for the bus service.

Mr Weidman was on a Megabus-contracted coach from San Francisco to Sacramento, California, when he was interviewed on a recent Friday after attempting to connect to the Internet. A regular bus user, he found the provided statistic laughable.

"There is none," he said of the onboard Wi-Fi. "I already checked." Mr Weidman, who paid US$28 for a one-way trip, said that he recently sprung for a mobile hotspot and unlimited data plan to make up for the gaps. "If it was a Delta flight, then, yes, you can probably complain, but this is Megabus," he said.

Services such as Amtrak and Megabus provide free Wi-Fi by working with mobile carriers to tap into cellphone networks along their routes, meaning that signals are often at the mercy of available cell towers. There is also the problem of bandwidth on crowded buses and trains. For that reason, Megabus and Amtrak limit access to streaming music and video - though Megabus, for example, lets riders pick from a limited set of movies and TV shows through its app.

Meanwhile, savvy entrepreneurs have taken advantage of the shortcomings in the companies' networks. Alex Gizis, CEO of Connectify, a technology company that developed the Speedify app, said that he most often hears from customers on Amtrak and Megabus. The app patches weak internet signals by tapping into Wi-Fi and mobile networks at the same time.

"We have a lot of users on Amtrak - we certainly get love notes," he said. "The nicest notes that show up in customer support are always, 'I'm on Amtrak and I'm finally getting work done'."

With Megabus, which runs in areas with even less coverage, the complaints of patchy service are even worse. "Megabus - mostly the complaints are the Wi-Fi just doesn't work on it," Mr Gizis said. (Megabus constantly monitors its fleet to ensure that its Wi-Fi systems are working correctly and is "pleased with the system we currently have in place", Mr Hughes said.) Mr Gizis said that early in his experience with Speedify, he hopped on an Amtrak train from New York to Philadelphia, aiming to test the railroad's network. What he found was that Amtrak's service worked about half the time - and when it did not, a mobile network was usually available.

"Sometimes the Verizon LTE card was pretty fast, while Amtrak's Wi-Fi slowed to a crawl," he said, recounting the experience on the company's website. "At other times, my 4G card disconnected, but the Wi-Fi was still chugging along."

That is the idea behind the app: Create a system by which users can connect to the Internet at all times by sending data through Wi-Fi and mobile networks, relying on Speedify's servers. It is a niche that paved the way for an app with half a million active users, though Mr Gizis said that many of them are in countries with spotty Internet access.

So what's the urgency of using Wi-Fi onboard? It isn't to watch "Captain America", said Ms Symmons, a new mother who has to hop on the train home as early as 4.30 pm. "I'm not trying to stream a video," she said. "I consider train time part of that work time . . . I really expect to be able to hit the ground running - have all my e-mails out of the way, all my admin (work) out of the way."

Amtrak spokeswoman Kimberly Woods said that the railroad works with major mobile carriers to improve its service on a continuing basis. She said that it has made "significant improvements" to its Wi-Fi for Acela Express, for example, while upgrades were underway for North-east Regional and other trains - including train equipment and infrastructure. WP