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March 26, 2016

Why There Never May Be Wi-Fi on Metro-North

A few weeks ago a friend was showing me his new Chevy Volt.  Not only does the hybrid-electric car get 42 mpg, it has its own Wi-Fi hotspot.  That’s right.  The car is a Wi-Fi device, so kids in the backseat can watch YouTube.

Days later we were on a road-trip from the Maryland shore when we caught the Lewes – Cape May ferry.  Onboard the vessel they offered passengers free Wi-Fi.  Airlines have offered flyers Wi-Fi for years now. 
Discount bus lines like Megabus have free Wi-Fi.  Even Connecticut’s new CTfastrak commuter bus system to Hartford gives its passengers free Wi-Fi.
Commuter railroads across the US offer Wi-Fi, including Boston's MBTA, Seattle's Sounder and even San Francisco's Caltrain.
But there is no Wi-Fi on Metro-North.  And the railroad says none is planned, even though the new M8 railcars are ready for the needed gear.  And therein lies a story.
Offering Wi-Fi on a moving vehicle usually involves cellular technology.  That’s how the first airline Wi-Fi was offered by companies like Go-Go, though JetBlue and Southwest now rely on proprietary satellite systems which are much faster (up to 30 MB sec!).
When Amtrak first offered Wi-Fi on its Acela trains between Washington and Boston, they immediately had bandwidth issues.  So many passengers were using their cell phones and tablets, speeds dropped to 0.6 mb per second and the complaints came pouring in.

That’s part of the reason that Metro-North is reluctant to offer Wi-Fi:  if an Acela train carrying 300 passengers can’t handle the online load, how could a ten-car train carrying a thousand commuters?  The railroad has enough complaints as it is.


Pay phone on Japanese train
Metro-North’s experience with on-board communications has left them feeling burned.  Remember years ago when the railroad installed cellular pay-phones on the trains?  Great idea, until a year later when costs came down and everyone had their own cell phone.  Those pay cell phone booths went unused and were eventually removed.

Back in 2006 then-President of MNRR Peter Cannito said Wi-Fi would be built into the new M8 cars, both for passengers and to allow the railcars to “talk” to HQ by beaming diagnostic reports.  The railroad issued an RFP for ideas and got a number of responses, including from Cablevision, with whom they negotiated for many months.  They even initiated on-train testing of Wi-Fi gear on one railcar.
But Metro-North insisted any Wi-Fi would have to cost the railroad nothing: that all the expense and tech risk would be borne by Cablevision or its customers.  And that’s where the negotiations deadlocked.

Today the railroad sees Wi-Fi as just a convenience.  Smart phones and cell-card configured laptops can access the internet just fine, they say, using cellular technology.  But to their credit the railroad is trying to get cell providers to fill in the coverage gaps, like in the tunnels and at GCT.

So don’t look for Wi-Fi anytime soon on America’s biggest and busiest commuter railroad.  It’s not seen as a necessity… except perhaps by its passengers who really have no other transportation option.

2 comments:

Patrick Macaluso said...

I believe Metro North is correct in not going Wifi. It would be continuously overloaded and the complaints would be never ending. There is currently construction being done to provide reliable cell service thought the Park Ave. tunnel which should be coming online "soon" (I don't have dates, but I know some of the people working on it). Cell service is spotty all along my section of the New Haven line, but I don't hold Metro North responsible for that...that is on the cell providers.

Steve Obsitnik said...

As someone who has built cellular networks, this is not a technical limitation, but a question what of service providers (transit and telecom companies) want to provide to customers. Like me, if you have been on more densely packed trains than MetroNorth in Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan, to name a few, you know that WIFI for all is possible if it is a priority.