WiFi on Amtrak: Traveling Connected
Recently, I took am Amtrak train to St. Louis (via Chicago) on the California Zephyr. While the trip had some breathtaking views through the Rocky Mountains, remaining connected throughout that trip was very much a challenge. Let’s explore.
About a week before I was to hop on the train, I thought it might be a good idea to buy a Verizon MiFi device for the trip. After all, Amtrak says they have WiFi on the trains, but they also say that the connectivity speed is limited and streaming of any kind is restricted. So, I decided to buy my own hotspot for the trip to stay connected without restrictions. Verizon has a 4G LTE Jetpack, and that’s what I chose. I bought the unit without a contract, so I paid full price for the unit with $50 a month service (4 GB cap). Verizon, at that time, only offered 3 different MiFi devices. A thicker square unit that has a blue LED-type display, two rectangular units, one with bright white text display (see image) and one with only a battery status display. The square unit has less battery life and is quite a bit bigger. The unit with only a status display is older and the unit I chose was I believe the newest of the three, the smallest and has the best battery life. One other important reason I chose this device (pictured to the left), is that it will operate while charging (this is important if you don’t want to wait an hour or two for it to charge). The older rectangular Jetpack will not operate while charging. I know this because we have one that gets passed around at work for on-call purposes and that limitation about that version sucked. So, I specifically looked for a unit that could operate while charging.
Note: I would post pictures here of all three units, but these units will be outdated in 6 months and new units will be available. So, you should check Verizon.com to see whatever is available today rather than trying to search for what I’ve purchased.
I also have an older Virgin 3G MiFi. I had purchased this one from Best Buy about a year ago. I originally purchased this because I didn’t want to invest in the data service on the iPad as it’s locked only to the iPad (cannot be tethered or become a hotspot without jailbreaking the unit). So, I bought the Virgin MiFi back then to allow me to use it with my phone, iPad, iPod touch or notebook. Much more flexible (and cheaper) than the AT&T or Verizon built-in 3G on the iPad. So, I carried this one with me on the trip also.
Why two MiFi devices?
Well, I already had the Virgin mobile 3G MiFi, but since it uses Sprint’s 3G network I wasn’t sure how reliable the connectivity would be during the trip. Because Verizon touts its ‘great coverage’, I bought into that spiel and purchased a Verizon unit as backup. So, I thought that if one failed to have connectivity that the other one might. The Verizon is also 4G and I thought I might get 4G speeds along some parts of the trip. So, let’s explore how that worked out.
How did it work out?
Not too well. The 4G on the Verizon MiFi was a complete waste. When I did have connectivity on the Verizon MiFi, it was always 3G. The only exception to this was major cities. By major cities, I mean major cities (like Chicago) and 3G everywhere else (whenever there was connectivity.. we’ll come to this). There was absolutely zero 4G connectivity anywhere along the California Zephyr route except in California when I started and in the outskirts of Chicago. Everywhere else was 3G.
How much connectivity did I have? In most of Nevada, there was absolutely nothing for long stretches. No phone service, no 3G, nothing. Just one big dead spot. The Rocky Mountains were mostly dead also, but that’s expected due to the mountains. Once I had gotten through Nevada and the Rockies, though, there was spotty connectivity whenever the train would be close to a medium sized city. Most of the service along the route was 1 or 2 bars when it was there. That’s not to say I didn’t have service, though. When there was service, it lasted for a while. Long enough to get email, send responses, etc. So, it was at least there enough to get some work done.
On the way back, I took a different train and route. This trek went from Kansas City to LA. This route has a whole lot more availability of service, but still no 4G. So, while the connectivity was more available, it wasn’t any more stable as it was still 1-2 bars. So, streaming was still not possible.
Note, though, I did swap between both devices for several reasons. I always preferred using the Virgin MiFi whenever available as it has unlimited service with no data cap. There’s a data cap on the Verizon service and I wanted to reserve usage of that to places where the Virgin device didn’t work (which was a lot more frequent than it should have been, but not unexpected).
So, the Verizon device did have connectivity somewhat more frequently than the Virgin (Sprint network) device. Since both ran at 3G speeds, they both had similar speed of transfers at 1-2 bars, which is fast enough for email, text messaging and limited surfing, but not much more than that.
T-Mobile Phone Service
Note that my phone is T-Mobile and the service here didn’t fare any better than the MiFi devices. However, whenever the Verizon device had service, so did T-Mobile. So, I was pleasantly surprised by similar phone connectivity along the route to Verizon. However, my phone has no data plan, so I couldn’t use this for any additional service. So, this is the need for carrying the MiFi devices.
Because the service was 1-2 bars most of the time and 3G, there is no way to reliably stream anything. Even at the highest numbers of bars, 3G still has a hard time streaming YouTube or Netflix. At 1 bar, there is just no way to stream. I tried streaming Stillstream.com on the train and it just kept cutting in and out. I would get about 2 minutes of stream and then it would cut off. Just not a great way to listen to online radio. So, streaming is definitely out. Streaming radio should be quite a bit lighter than streaming video. On the train, streaming video simply won’t work. Expect to bring along offline media like downloaded movies or disks.
What about Amtrak WiFi?
Apparently, few trains have it. I was in a sleeper and supposedly the sleeper cars were to have WiFi. However, none of the trains had WiFi at all. So, there was no way to use a train WiFi as backup as there was nothing. I’m definitely glad I brought my own MiFi as otherwise I wouldn’t have had any connectivity. Was getting the Verizon Jetpack worth it? Not really considering the connectivity level of the Virgin device. If I hadn’t had a device at all, then perhaps. However, the 4G doesn’t work at all on the train, and 3G was not that great, either. At least, not for streaming. Although, I will say that the Verizon device did at least offer service more frequently than Virgin, but not more frequently that I’d run out and buy a Verizon device just to travel on Amtrak. Since the Virgin device is cheaper (at least for the plan I have), then it was enough. However, Virgin has changed up their plans again, so it may not be such a great deal for 3G connectivity.
I’m glad I had MiFi devices so I could at least check email, respond, text message and do limited surfing. This was great for that purpose (when the service wasn’t completely dead). However, expect to bring along books to read, movies to watch and other offline media. Don’t expect to watch YouTube, Netflix or download stuff while traveling on Amtrak as it just won’t work for that. Amtrak needs to improve this part of the travel experience as connectivity is important to a lot of people today. Not having the Internet is really an oversight that needs to be corrected.
Additionally, carriers like Verizon need to plant more towers along Amtrak train routes to offer better connectivity (and 4G service) to Amtrak trains. Amtrak and the carriers need to partner to offer service on the trains that is of higher quality all along the way instead of long stretches of dead spots. On the flip side, though, if you’re on the train you may want to be cut off from the world without phone or internet service. I can understand this as well, but for those who want to surf (especially at night when it’s extremely dark outside the train), you’ll have to find something else to do during dead spots.
Both Amtrak and the carriers need to improve this as traveling by train is actually relaxing and a fun way to see the country which you completely miss when flying. In fact, the California Zephyr offers scenery that you can see no other way than by train as there are no roads that lead through parts of the route they take. So, traveling by train is definitely a fun way to see the country. Yes, much slower than by plane, but a whole lot more scenic. Because of the length of travel it takes to get across country by train, having reliable Internet service is actually something Amtrak needs to address. Amtrak just needs to bring itself up to today’s technology and get better connectivity on the trains. This is not an impossible task, it just needs a bit of investment by both the carriers and by Amtrak.