What’s Up with the Train’s Wi-Fi?

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

20 thoughts on “What’s Up with the Train’s Wi-Fi?

  1. Jeremy

    I’ve been riding the train since day one and I used to take the 6:40 train out of downtown to Lakeline. There have been times when I’ve been on the train with maybe 5-10 other people and the WiFi still stinks. Of course cell service stinks on most of the rail route as well so I’m assuming that has something to do with it.

    Watching a YouTube video is lauaghable. I tried once while the train was sitting still at downtown station. It didn’t even load.

    I think the lack of complaints is more do with not bothering or not knowing who to complain to than a lack of poor service.

    I love the train, but I just pretend that there’s no wifi service it’s less frustrating that way.

  2. Thanks for write up! I appreciate your candor on this issue and sense of humor about. I was a network admin in a former life, and both approaches are especially useful in that role.

    Two things: customer complaints are like cockroaches – for every one you get, theres probably 10 that you don’t get because people just don’t bother. You might try popping a survey on the cap metro splash page and poll people to get some more data on how you’re really doing with that.

    I had a pretty good intuition that the solution was consumer grade cellular, but even with the current solution I think Cap Metro could make some demands of the cellular provider for better service. I’ve been on the train when I’ve verified that I’m the only laptop going, and see dead spots and 25+ second ping times, which most likely speaks to the coverage that the provider (in this case Sprint) has.

    The coverage is really hurting between Lakeline and Howard Stations, has dead spots and 25s+ ping times between Howard and Kramer, and has a plenty of dead spots and 10s+ ping times from Kramer all the way to downtown.

    I also noted that Sprint coverage roams to another network in a couple of spots (I carry a sprint phone and an AT&T phone for work) so there may be issues related to cross carrier handling of the data connection.

    If I were a customer spending say $50 per data connection X 6 Cars ($300/month, assuming you negotiated better than the $60/month/connection that they retail), I think I would take your sprint rep to task given their coverage map for Austin shows that the train should be covered solid pretty much end-to-end.

    http://coverage.sprint.com/IMPACT.jsp?covType=wimaxdual&serviceType=data&mapcity=Austin&mapstate=TX&INTNAV=4G:20100602:WelcometoFastLane:CvgDetails

    Plus, from the Cap Metro P/L statement it appears the organization spends a lot more with the mobile provider than just the train, so I would think about throwing my weight around with said provider until they got service working *great* on the trains and other mobile wifi that Cap Metro provides.

    Now, maybe you’ve already done this and we don’t know it, but I would want to know that Cap Metro is managing the heck out of any vendors to get the best experience possible. If you’d like a representative customer on the call to play “bad cop” just let me know.

    Jack

  3. matt

    I agree with Jeremy. I’m not taking the train for the WiFi, so I haven’t complained, but I sure wouldn’t mind if it worked better. I can check email and Twitter since both use very little data, but that’s it. Any usage above that isn’t worth the time on that connection, including following external links from those 2 services.

    FWIW, I would gladly pay $35/month for my single-zone pass as opposed to the $30/month currently proposed if it significantly sped up the WiFi.

  4. Erik

    Oh my gosh, a) these first-world problems are so silly, and b) the associated peanut gallery that comes with ‘free’ things is unbelievably lame and predictable.

    And technically it’s not free, so you shouldn’t lie to yourself since you eat the cost somewhere — increasing fares should not be a solution. That being said, you should’ve known that this service wouldn’t meet the performance expectations of your customers and worked to address this or cancelled the implementation.

    Three questions: what’s the cost per month with this network? what percentage of operating expenses (as well as revenue from tickets) does this cost represent? Using the connection data vs ridership data, what percentage of riders utilize this service?

  5. I appreciate all of the comments and yes I will continue to push on the telecom providers to improve the quality.

    To Erik’s points, yes we knew this would be an issue, but we decided some value rolled into the cost of service was better than no value. It is easy to not do something for the risk of failure, but we decided to run the risk and see if it was a value to the community. Things that are given away without an obvious related cost are undervalued.

    As to the cost question here is the napkin calculus.

    Operating cost per unit $40 per month. 12 units for the six trains. = $480 per month to provide service on the trains.

    Assume 800 trips per day. 22 days of service per month. 3000 connections per month = 3000 / (800*22) = 17% of all trips connect to the Wi-Fi. This is better than we expected (more like 5% – 10%) so the utilization is very good.

    I am not sure of the best financial number to compare this to, but our annual numbers are all posted in our budget.

    As for the complaints I agree with the cockroach analogy. However to continue to see the 3000+ connections per month suggests that it has some value to 17% of our riders or they wouldn’t bother to connect. I view it as $480 per month to provide something noteworthy and of value to 17% of the population. But as always, if there are better recommendations for that $480 per month I am open to them.

    And of course we will continue to push to make it a better service over time.

  6. Erik

    Thanks for the napkin math. Your initial expectations of an estimated 5-10% utilization are indeed correct, based on your pre-launch estimates of total daily ridership. 800 trips/day is not even close to those estimates, as I’m sure you guys are repeatedly made aware of. But, $480/month is cheaper than the coffee in your break rooms, so none too shabby for what you’ve invested up to this point. Here’s a suggestion: Double or triple your investment. How would you pay for it? By turning off the LEDs/speakers at stations after-hours and on weekends, and by reducing the number of lights that are left on while still maintaining sufficient security. Your mission, if you choose to accept it.

  7. I like the mission and have some ideas about how to pull it off. If my boss disagrees I will simply tell them a taxpayer told me to do it ;-). I’ll post an update when we can juice the system up and I may take you guys up on your offers to leverage the telecoms. Thanks,

    1. Erik

      Kirk, I’m not sure if you’re aware but CMTA appears to be “pushing” the WiFi a lot harder now w/ a new splash animation at http://www.capmetro.org/MetroRail/index.asp

      “play a video game, read a book, surf the web, check email, take in the scenery…arrive refreshed.”

      Providing ‘some value’ seems to be pushed as more value than you’re actually budgeted for.

  8. The claim that customers shouldn’t have expected much flies in the face of the heavy promotion of the availability of wifi on the train (usually used as a reason to get people off the bus, despite the fact that the express buses have wi-fi too).

    In other words, if it’s this lame, don’t advertise it.

  9. Tony

    I’ve ridden the train a few times, and I connect via my laptop so that I can get a head start on my work e-mail before I step foot in the office. One of my main problems with the on board Wifi is that when I VPN to get my office mail I don’t even have enough bandwidth to sign-in to Sametime (my employers instant messaging software) after establishing my VPN connection. There are many times where my packets simply time out. Othertimes my latency is more than 45 seconds to 2 minutes. Which is worse than using a 14.4k modem 🙂

    I wasn’t exactly sure where to file a complaint about the internet, but you know, I’ve been in other cities and ridden their public transit where they didn’t even have on-board Wifi. So if Cap Metro decides to keep it, make sure that it works for all types of connections (laptops, smartphones, etc). Otherwise, just get rid of it since it’s not even capable of handling the current amount of traffic.

    Also, while I’m on my rant, get rid of the two zones. Just make it one zone and one flat rate. I’m sure if the system just had 1 zone and operated on the weekend nights, this system would pay itself off easily. I can’t tell you how many of my friends from up north said how cool it’d be to take the train downtown, then go to the Alamo, or 6th street, then take it back up north and go home. I’m sure Cap Metro has looked into this, but can’t seem to work it out with the freight lines. In which case, they should buy the right of way and build some new lines and make this public transportation method correctly. Just my two cents. Keep up the good work though. Seriously. Without physically running the train up and down Austin, this city would have never embraced it.

    1. mdahmus

      Tony, those people might say they’d take the train – but the hundred or so that actually would at night would make the operating subsidy look even worse.

      What we’ve actually done here is built a commuter rail line that kills the one truly slam-dunk light rail possibility (the 2000 route) in this city; and in the process convinced a lot of persuadable swing voters that rail never works.

      1. Erik

        I’m pretty sure the majority of folks who even bother using WiFi consistently are the people who spend an hour each day between Leander and Downtown/UT — and as has been discussed there’s several dead zones along the route, especially up north, so the reliability experience is up for debate more so than the speed or ability to watch youtube. And frankly, bandwidth throttling should be something built-in to avoid folks over-saturating the network with video content. It’s a “commuter” line, no? Oh wait, not for long.

        Well, I didn’t even notice the lack of WiFi on Portland’s MAX light rail when visiting there recently. And to be quite honest, I’m not surprised they don’t offer it, because they’re not in a position where they have to “offer value” beyond offering a great transportation network to the community. That’s what we’re missing, not the ability to post LOLs to Twitter.

  10. Tony

    Agreed. I’m not debating that. I am using it for legitimate business use, not for the entertainment value. If they provide the service, then it should work consistently. If not, then yank it, or have a pay for play service that’s maintained by another company.

    I know we just barely got one commuter rail line in, but honestly, why not go all out. I’ve been toying around with the idea of a subway system + commuter rail in Austin on my Desktop for a while. I’d be happy to share these “plans” with somebody from Capital Metro if they’re interested. If they build it now, the city can be built up around it much like NYC. There are pictures of subway stations in the middle of nowhere back in the day up there in NY. Now those same stops have literally thousands of people per day traveling through them, new neighborhoods and businesses have thrived because of them, and I’m not sure why the City of Austin isn’t investigating Federal Grants for such a large project like this. Being that we have 50K+ students downtown and tons of tech companies down here and a sprawling suburban atmosphere, it’s a no brainer.

    1. mdahmus

      Tony, you need to go read the six-going-on-seven years of stuff I’ve written about the Red Line. Capital Metro doesn’t want to build any urban rail; they need to be made to do so by external entities – unfortunately, our city council has decided to remain passive – and as a result, most of the paltry benefits of this line accrue to people who don’t even pay Capital Metro taxes.

  11. Brad

    Even if Cap Metro wanted to do an Urban Rail(s) (I’m not sure they really don’t), there is no way you would get the ridership to justify the expense of subway.

    As long as we’re talking pie in the sky ideas, I really like that Chinese big bus idea. The Chinese claim they can build it for about a million a mile, even if it is 10x as much here, that would only be 10 million a mile, which is way cheaper than urban/light rail and should have just as good if not better performance.

    1. Brad, that’s right; we will likely never have any underground rail here – which is why the city’s urban rail proposal is so critical (now that the 2000 light rail line cannot be built thanks to the squatting carcass of the Red Line). It’s light rail running in the street so you can walk to your office instead of taking a stupid shuttlebus — unfortunately, unlike 2000, there’s no logical route left that runs in the street close-in and then off-street further out to get both the proximity advantage near offices and the speed advantage elsewhere.

      1. Brad

        That’s what I like about that Chinese big bus. I know it’s brand new, but the concept is intriguing. You would be able to use the existing infrastructure and create a system with similar performance to a light rail with dedicated lanes since the bus wouldn’t be held up by traffic and traffic wouldn’t be held up by the bus.

        That being said, I know it’s too new at this point, so I agree with election in 2012 for the Urban Rail is important. It’s the best option that we have.

  12. Charles

    Wow. Published complaints is how you are judging success. Then let me add the 100 complaints for every time I have ridden the train. Upgrade to mesh or 4g or both.

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