So recently, there has been some buzz around issues with the Wi-Fi on the train. Specifically people have been complaining about how slow the connection has been and how it can cut out at certain points on the route and how the system overall was a piece of __insert your own expletive here___. Being a sensitive soul and one that doesn’t like to see a good thing turn sour I did a little digging to figure out what the extent of the problem is and what can be done about it.
The first thing to understand is the inherit limitations of the way the system was built and what it can do and where it will start disappointing. The whole thing is a lot trickier to be successful at since the train has the pesky habit of moving when people want to get on the internet. With your run-of-the-mill Starbucks Wi-Fi if you find that the connection is too slow you can spend a little more money and buy a bigger Internet pipe from dozens of companies. But inside a moving metal tube your choices become a lot more limited and a lot more expensive. Namely you can pick between any combination of 1) Wireless Mesh / WiMAX / Other Wireless Technology, 2) Satellite, or 3) Cellular. This list is ranked from fastest (and most expensive) to slowest (and least expensive). Now guess which one we chose? If you remembered that we are in the midst of a mind-numbing recession, that we are trying to put our money where it matters the most and therefore you picked 3) cellular technology… Then you would be correct.
So what does that mean for the service you can expect? Without getting into the details of how we did it, the easiest analogy that hits the salient points and yet keeps it simple is the following: Imagine that we duct taped a 3G smart phone (Droid, Blackberry, or iPhone, doesn’t matter) to the top of each train car. That’s it. Now for Federal Railroad safety reasons and so that I still have a job on Monday it is a little bit more involved than that, but we are using the same technology to connect to the Internet. So that you get the full picture, now imagine that 7 – 10 people in each train wanted to use that smart phone all at the same time to access the Internet, read e-mail and watch a video on Youtube. For those with a smartphone you can imagine the results. For those without, try drinking the contents of a swimming pool with a straw and you start to get an idea.
The astute among you will probably now say, well, since there are issues on the train why not just get more cellular devices? To which I would say, good idea. The challenge is both the limits of the devices installed in the train (they can only hold so many cellular modems) and one of costs. Capital Metro has to pay a monthly data connection fee from our cellular provider (just like everyone else) and when you start multiplying that number by 12 months and 6 train cars (2 devices per car) it becomes an issue. We are currently working with our carrier to see if we can upgrade to their new 4G network to get better speeds, but they have not yet come out with a commercial grade product that will work in our devices (they put out a consumer grade one that would last only about 15 minutes in our environment). The other choice we faced was charging for the service (which would definitely whittle down the demand quickly and give a better product to those that remained) but that felt a little bit too un-Austin and frankly, people that want to pay for connectivity have other options and aren’t going to settle for lower connection speeds. So we chose the best blend we could.
I expect there will be a wide range of opinions on this position, but once I found the usage statistics I felt a little bit better about the choices we made. So without further ado, I present the details for the system since we opened the rail line. And as always, please let us know what you think.
March: 1762 Connections 2 Complaints
April: 3551 Connections 5 Complaints
May: 3079 Connections 2 Complaints
June: 3001 Connections 3 Complaints
July: 2435 Connections 2 Complaints
August: 2984 Connections 0 Complaints
Sept: 3097 Connections 4 Complaints