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Amtrak Connect WiFi on Empire Service

2011-11-06 , ,

My Empire Service intercity train had a newly applied sticker on the window reading,
“Your seat is now a hot spot.” So I figured I’d give the wireless a try. tl;dr version: free, just ok.

I’ve been using Verizon EVDO regularly for the past five years on the Albany to New York route. It’s barely usable north of Poughkeepsie. There are frequent dead spots, latency is high and throughput between stations is poor. However, my downstream bandwidth requirements are minimal: a steady 1-2KB/s for ssh, bursts of 48-128KB/s for Google news, Slashdot, a few blogs, and reading news and mailing lists in Emacs Gnus and I hit a brief peak of 225KB/s reading an image heavy site. Despite that, it’s sometimes impossible to even keep an interactive SSH session going. I hoped Amtrak’s service would be better.

The service uses the common captured portal scheme, which redirects to the agreement page. After accepting the limitations— 10MB on downloads, “objectionable content” blocked, etc.— you’re able to resolve names and things work normally. I didn’t poke around the limitations and I’m not surprised there’s nanny filtering but SSL, IPSec and SSH all work.

Unfortunately, it’s not obviously better than EVDO except near the stations where it’s remarkably faster. The dead zones, drop-outs and poor interactivity I see with Verizon along the route exist with Amtrak Connect. I suspect this is because Amtrak gets its service from the same wireless vendors and suffers the same weak coverage. Over-subscription of the on train service doesn’t seem to be a problem yet, a mid-trip wifi scan from my seat turned up eight Motorola access points on the train and twenty unique devices using them (half Apple, though only two Mac laptops including my own were visible in this car). I’ve attended conferences with more numerous and more active clients on a single AP so it’s likely the problem is the uplink coverage.



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