Ask Maggie: On Amtrak Wi-Fi and Droid Bionic

This week's Ask Maggie explains why Wi-Fi on the go is so frustratingly slow, and delivers some good news about the launch for the Motorola Droid Bionic.

Internet access on the go for business travelers is like water to a fish; it's a necessity.

So it's not surprising that thousands of passengers who travel up and down the Northeast corridor on Amtrak's Acela Express train are ready to pull their hair out when the free Wi-Fi is so sluggish it brings their productivity to a halt. In this week's Ask Maggie, I offer an explanation for the painfully slow crawl that is known as Wi-Fi on the Acela. And I offer some hope that things might get better as new 4G wireless networks are deployed.

I also share some good news with another reader about the official release date for the much-anticipated and much-delayed Motorola Droid Bionic. And I explain why smartphone subscribers don't get to choose between Wi-Fi service and costly cellular data plans.

Ask Maggie is a weekly advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. If you've got a question, please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header.

Come on Amtrak, I want my free Wi-Fi!

Dear Maggie,
I recently traveled between Boston and New York City on Amtrak's Acela train. I was on the road for work and was hoping to take advantage of the free Wi-Fi on the train. But the connection was so slow I could barely load my Gmail to check e-mail. Can you please explain why this is so bad and do you think it will ever get any better?

Thanks,
Jim

Dear Jim,
I have a feeling that if I asked for a show of hands from people who wanted to throw their laptops out the window while trying to use Wi-Fi on Amtrak's Acela Express, I'd see thousands of hands raised right now. I have also experienced the slow crawl of Amtrak's Wi-Fi. And believe me, I feel your pain. Sometimes my wireless air card that uses a cellular 3G network gets better results than Wi-Fi on Amtrak. But to be honest it's not just Amtrak that suffers from poor Wi-Fi connectivity. I've been on commuter buses, such as the Bolt bus or Vamoose bus, which travel between major cities on the East coast, and I've had similarly poor experiences.

Amtrak has tried to prepare consumers for a bad experience in its FAQ on its Website:

"While Amtrak strives to deliver the best Internet experience possible, we cannot guarantee the delivery of a specific Internet speed to passengers. Performance of the network will vary as the train travels along the route and is determined by the proximity of cell towers and strength of wireless signals at any given location. We continue to look at solutions which will improve the speed and connectivity of our network."

So what's going on to make the Amtrak Wi-Fi suck so badly?

Delivering a reliable and high-capacity Wi-Fi network on a moving vehicle for dozens or even hundreds of people is a big challenge. You may not realize it, but all wireless communications eventually end up on a wired network. And generally, the closer the wired network is to the end user, the more capacity the service provider is likely to able to deliver to that end user.

What's happening in the case of the Amtrak train and the commuter bus is that there is no wired connection that is attached to these moving vehicles that can take the aggregated Wi-Fi traffic and put it on the Net. Instead, the Wi-Fi access points on the train or bus are connected to a 3G wireless radio that transmits the aggregated data over the cellular network to the Internet.

So even though it may be possible for a Wi-Fi network to deliver 15Mbps of throughput to you on a public Wi-Fi network, because that's how fast the Wi-Fi radios operate, since all that traffic is being funneled to a connection that can only transmit at a maximum of about 1.5Mbps, it's likely that the Wi-Fi network will get jammed up because there isn't enough capacity on the 3G network to send all the data.

"It's like trying to pour a bucket of water through a straw," said Stephen Rayment, CTO of Belair Networks, which makes Wi-Fi gear used in these types of networks. "Water is bound to spill out. And that's what is likely happening here."

By contrast, Wi-Fi hotspots that are built at a fixed and stationary location, such as at a train station or along a city block, can be hooked directly to a wired network and deliver consistently faster broadband connections to dozens or even hundreds of simultaneous users. This is why Cablevision, which is building Wi-Fi hotspots on commuter train platforms and inside train stations and bus stops, can advertise that its Wi-Fi offered free to its broadband subscribers can deliver up to 15Mbps download speeds.

Another challenge for delivering Wi-Fi while users are traveling in moving vehicles is the fact that the the 3G radios on those vehicles are hopping in and out of different cell sites at very fast speeds. Sometimes the hand-off between these cell sites is not smooth and calls and data sessions can be dropped. You probably have noticed this while you're barreling down the highway and your cell phone call suddenly drops.

New 4G wireless broadband networks should improve wireless broadband service on moving vehicles, like trains and buses. Networks that use the 4G LTE technology can deliver average connection speeds of about 12Mbps. And in some regions it could be even higher. This fatter pipe will mean that the access points can aggregate more traffic from users on the moving Wi-Fi network without flooding the cellular connection that takes all that data to an even higher capacity wired network.

That said, it may be awhile before coverage is good enough to provide a seamless experience throughout an entire trip. 4G radios will likely have the same troubles that 3G devices have when traveling between cell sites. And until 4G networks are ubiquitous, 4G devices will not only hand off between other 4G cell sites, but they'll also have to hand off to 3G networks. I've already noticed on Verizon Wireless's 4G LTE network that the hand-off between 4G and 3G networks in a moving bus or train is not always smooth.

So should you give up on public Wi-Fi and carrier-sponsored Wi-Fi and just use a carrier air card?

Belair's Rayment says no.

"A carrier Wi-Fi network should always be better than using a cellular Mi-Fi or air card," he said. "But I can't speak for every situation. Perhaps there are bottlenecks. But a well-engineered carrier network should deliver better performance. Air cards and Mi-Fi's are better used in places where Wi-Fi isn't available at all."

I hope this helps and good luck getting connected on your next business trip!

Coming soon! The Motorola Droid Bionic!

Dear Maggie,
I've been patiently waiting for the Motorola Droid Bionic since it was announced at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. I've been eligible for an upgrade on Verizon Wireless since May. I thought I would be able to get the Bionic this spring and then I thought it would come this summer. But it's still not here. Any idea when it will arrive? Should I just hold out for an iPhone 5 at this point?

Thanks,
Cindy

Dear Cindy,
I've got some good news for you. Motorola will be releasing the Bionic on Verizon's network in September, according to Motorola Mobility CEO Sanjay Jha. During the company's earnings conference call on Thursday , Jha said the company wanted to make sure to work out the kinks of the 4G device to make certain it works well on Verizon's new 4G LTE network. He said the device will soon be ready, and consumers can expect to see it in Verizon stores and online starting in September.

Droid Bionic
Motorola

Of course, the Bionic is now timed to make its debut around the same time that the next generation iPhone is also due to hit the market. The latest rumor is that the iPhone 5 will be released in September . But others have pegged the release date for October. Either way, it's in the same ballpark as the launch of the Bionic.

It's hard to say whether you should get the Bionic or the next iPhone, given that we don't know for sure what the specs on the new iPhone 5 will be.

What we do know is that the Bionic will be able to take advantage of Verizon's speedy 4G LTE network. My guess is that Apple will not include LTE functionality in the next version of the iPhone. Some pundits might disagree with me. But in the past Apple has waited to put cutting edge network technology into its devices. Remember the first iPhone did not support 3G, and there were already several phones released for 3G networks in the summer of 2007.

One of the reasons that Apple is likely to forgo 4G in this version is that the technology is still new. Other 4G smartphones on the market have had battery life issues, and Apple tries very hard to ensure that its devices do not have battery issues.

We also know that the Bionic is among the first dual-core 4G phones. This will make the phone a bit more responsive and may allow some apps to function better on it.

Some reports indicate the new iPhone will use Apple A5 dual core processor chips and that it will have an 8-megapixel camera, which would rival the Droid Bionic's specs. But other say that the new phone will be a modest update to the current version of he iPhone.

In other words, you should probably just wait a month or so to see what shakes out. You've already waited this long, so what's another month or so?

Carrier Wi-Fi or mobile data? What's the difference?

Dear Maggie,
What is the difference between Verizon Wi-Fi and its cellular data plans? I make less than 450 minutes worth of calls on my cell phone, send a good amount of text messages, and use the Internet on my phone a great deal. Would you recommend that I get Wi-Fi, the data plan or both?

Thanks,
Crowncac

Dear Crowncac,

If you have a smartphone for Verizon Wireless' network you are required to subscribe to a mobile data plan, starting at $30 a month for 2GB worth of data per month. It's very likely that your smartphone will have a Wi-Fi radio built-in, and you can connect to Wi-Fi hotspots using this functionality. But you must still subscribe to a Verizon data plan if you have a smartphone, and you plan to use any carrier services, such as voice calling.

Verizon Wireless also allows its mobile data subscribers to connect to its thousands of Wi-Fi hotspots in the U.S., Canada and Mexico for free. Connecting to free Wi-Fi hotspots when you can is a good idea because it can help you conserve your monthly data usage. Remember you get at least 2GB of data per month from Verizon as part of your monthly smartphone data service. But data consumed using a Wi-Fi network doesn't count toward your monthly data allotment.

AT&T also offers Wi-Fi hotspots. It offers more than 26,000 Wi-Fi hotspots around the U.S. that are free to use if you subscribe to an AT&T mobile data plan. The company has also built Wi-Fi hotzones in cities like New York City and Chicago that cover several blocks in highly concentrated areas like around New York's Time Square and Chicago's Wrigley Field. AT&T has said that there were more than 246 million connections in its Wi-Fi hotspots in the second quarter of 2011. And usage is growing. A year ago during the same quarter, it only saw about 68 million connections in its hotspots.

But just like Verizon, AT&T smartphone subscribers are required to sign up for a mobile data plan on AT&T. So unfortunately, there is no either/or to decide when it comes to getting a Wi-Fi service or a cellular data service. Sorry. There's just one choice if you have a smartphone: carrier data. And if you're lucky you might get Wi-Fi on the side.

 

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