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Transit companies seek to upgrade communications capabilities

Amtrak's announcement to upgrade its on-board Wi-Fi emphasizes the pressure on the transportation industry to provide faster service at a low cost.

Amtrak's move to turbocharge Wi-Fi and Internet service along its heavily traveled Northeast Corridor comes as providers of all kinds take steps to improve their in-transit communications capabilities.

The railroad, which is in the beginning stages of reviewing bids it received following its June announcement, is hoping for a high-speed, dedicated trackside network that would deliver 25 Mbps of bandwidth to travelers along the corridor, the busiest in the country. That would more than double the railroad's current network, which is plagued by dead spots and escalating demands from travelers competing for scarce resources.

The goal, said Lenetta McCampbell, Amtrak's senior director of passenger experience, is to transform what travelers currently get from riding the rails. Whether it is streaming movies or sending work emails, passengers are demanding faster speeds at little to no cost.

"Right now, we only offer a cellular service, and we have to restrict usage. We limit what people can do when they go to the Internet. They can't stream movies or listen to music. This leads to dissatisfaction and understandably so," she said.

By opening up the pipeline, McCampbell said Amtrak can ideally provide free access for passengers to do whatever they want online. At a minimum, McCampbell said, she wants to at least open up what content customers can access.

While Amtrak believes the project is feasible --the railroad hopes construction can begin in early 2015 in Delaware -- it will have to overcome some technical roadblocks.

"In a high-speed mobile environment, the technology might be strained. If we have a radio network built along the right-of-way and train speeds of 160 miles per hour, we have to determine whether or not the radios can handle the hand-off between devices," she said. "There aren't many examples of trackside networks around the world. Where there are examples, they are different from what we are thinking of."

One possible option for enhancing communications capabilities is to build a network in which radios, placed at intervals along the rails, send along train signals directly to a data center for transmission to the Internet. In other countries with trackside systems, McCampbell said railroads are able to leverage long term evolution (LTE) networks to provide on-board Wi-Fi -- this might also be an option for Amtrak, she said.

City transit buses explore Wi-Fi benefits

Amtrak isn't the only transportation company looking to upgrade Internet access options for its customers.

Joseph Smits, vice president of business development at Saucon Technologies -- the Bethlehem, Pennslyvania, company that provides Wi-Fi to city transit bus systems and motor coaches across the U.S. -- says Saucon is also eager to upgrade the passenger experience.

"We have been trying to work with service providers to promote a volume-based program where we would bring a multitude of vehicles and clients to them and in return get unlimited Wi-Fi access for a low cost," Smits said.

Saucon currently offers a broadband package to bus companies, whichprovides each vehicle with 5GB of broadband capacity, which includes a bridge to cellular service. Bus companies can restrict access if they desire, but Smits said his goal is to be able to provide as much access to web content as possible.

Then there's wireless service in the air. Airlines are working hard to increase in-flight Wi-Fi access. According to market research firm IHS, the number of commercial planes worldwide with Wi-Fi, cellular service or both is expected to triple over the next 10 years from 4, 000 to 14,000. Asian countries are expected to see the most growth.

In-flight Wi-Fi service provider, Gogo Inc., which now dominates the market, is in the planning stages of increasing the bandwidth it provides air passengers, from 9.8 Mbps to 70 Mbps. The company will do this by using Ku-band antennas.

Meanwhile, AT&T , said it hopes to begin offering free in-flight Wi-Fi access service in the U.S. late next year through an alliance it struck with Honeywell International Inc. The service will use 4G LTE technology to anchor the service, using a network of ground-based antennas that will mesh with receivers installed on planes. According to Bloomberg, AT&T will use Wireless Communications Spectrum to transmit the LTE signal.

This was last published in August 2014

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