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After complaints, Amtrak to launch high-speed WiFi network

Thursday - 6/12/2014, 4:04am  ET

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Amtrak's new electric locomotive, which serves the Northeast Corridor (AP Photo/David Boe)

WASHINGTON -- After years of complaints from passengers, Amtrak plans to create its own high-speed WiFi network for the busy Northeast Corridor service.

Lenetta McCampbell, senior director of passenger experience, says Amtrak has heard passengers' frustration.

"They want to be able to do more," says McCampbell.

Amtrak launched basic WiFi service in 2010, with 2.5 and 3G service, and upgraded to 4G earlier this year, but it is a public cellular solution, and passengers are often unable to connect.

In addition, Amtrak's current WiFi doesn't support streaming music, streaming video or downloading large files.

"We've always had to restrict what passengers can do, in order to give everyone a relatively good experience," says McCampbell.

She says the new service would allow people to work on the train, or relax with streaming entertainment. "Demand for the service has grown significantly, and the amount of data passengers want to consume has grown."

"We know that our customers want a consistently reliable and fast on-board WiFi experience -- something we cannot guarantee today on our busiest trains when hundreds of passengers want to go online at the same time," says Amtrak chief marketing and sales officer Matt Hardison in a statement.

When will the high-speed WiFi be available?

Amtrak is now soliciting bids for the project.

"Our hope is to be under construction this winter, with a 10-mile proof-of-concept section," McCampbell says. "That's going to occur in Delaware and let us test the technology and our ability to do the construction project on a very busy railroad -- the busiest railroad in North America."

Amtrak says the track-side network's goal would be to increase available bandwidth from the current 10 Mbps to a minimum of 25 Mbps, with ability to up speeds as the technology improves.

After reviewing the test in Delaware, the decision will be made on whether it is technically and financially feasible to construct the network along the entire 457-mile Northeast Corridor, which runs from D.C. to Boston.

Will the service be free to passengers?

"That's a good question," says McCampbell, "and it's something we'll have to evaluate in time."

McCampbell says the decision will be made after Amtrak determines the true costs of constructing the network.

"We know our passengers find a lot of value in the availability of a WiFi network on a train," says McCampbell. "So it's possible there'll be some form of fee, whether it's integrated into the overall ticket fare, or a separate fee, or simply captured through increased ridership."

Amtrak has not announced when it expects passengers will be able to use the high-speed WiFi.

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